We still agree on the Super Bowl, no? It’s as American as democracy but without the existential threats. Even in this shrunken pandemic form, the stage is about more than football, and it brings us back together, in spirit at least. Public health experts have spent the week advising against potential coronavirus superspreader viewing parties, and in Tampa, Raymond James Stadium will be about one-third full. Despite the restrictions, it will feel like the nation and world are watching, and millions of disconnected people will get to experience something fun together again.
For the past 11 months, as the coronavirus has slithered about and ravaged our way of life, we have had to consider the role of athletics in an unstable society, debate their worth and establish new ground rules for playing amid the catastrophe. The popular argument for sports has been the need for distraction and escape. But the most essential benefits are connection and community. We need this Super-ish Bowl, but more than that, we desperately need a clearer pathway to the safe resumption of all the smaller events — on fields of play, at parks, in stores — that allow folks to gather and feel a sense of belonging.
There’s joy in those little public moments once taken for granted. There’s healing, too.
The games don’t save us, but they allow for a release of all the angst and pressure. They open a gate to a happier place, and they offer entertainment that becomes immersive. We get to see ourselves — usually our better selves — in those arenas and stadiums.
In times of national crisis, we’re used to sports making a contribution to our recovery. It happened after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It happened after the Boston Marathon bombing, after various natural disasters, after several tense moments in 1968. It’s hard to recall many struggles in which the devastation was too great for sports to provide some emotional assistance. And then this pandemic hit.
From a sports perspective, the strangest part of this worldwide tragedy has been the crippling social deterrence. If we’re not careful, we can be a threat to each other’s health, which can be misconstrued as reason to feel threatened in every way. We’re all drifting, searching for an island. Combine that with disparate ideologies and metastasizing extremism, and the isolation has led people down some dark alleys.
It would be naive to think a robust sports schedule would have prevented the Capitol riot. Nor would normal sports have eased the racial tension stemming from police brutality, which could have resulted in mass protests at any time. Nothing could have soothed the pain of a year of death and suffering. But in their normal state, sports would have provided a different option for some people to find a tribe, a healthier tribe.
Larry Olmsted delved into fandom in his new book, “Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Understanding.” It’s a deeply researched and persuasive exploration of the benefits of our mysterious athletic obsession. After the pandemic began, he expanded his premise. In an interview, he expressed optimism about sports still helping us through this tragic time.
“When it’s actually safe to go back, that’s when people will feel the healing power of sports,” Olmsted said.
Olmsted, whose work includes compelling insights from leading sports psychologists, kept referring to the sports experience as one in which you are “constantly being subconsciously connected.” This connection operates on multiple levels. Two of the most important: commonality with everyone else watching the game and affinity for your team. These concepts seem intellectually obvious, but there’s a magnetism to the effect, an attraction that means everything.
“When an avid fan is subconsciously merged with the team, it is, to a lot of people, greater than other beliefs you hold,” said Olmsted, whose book will be released March 2. “For a significant enough portion, it’s a bit of an acceptance. It’s so important to them that they put aside other things because they’re so invested in supporting their team.”
There’s legitimate dread about what sports crowds will be like on the other side of this trauma. With so much division, fear and resentment, it’s reasonable to wonder how much drama and uneasiness about health and safety will seep into sporting events when we’re able to pack venues again.
There are already troubling anecdotes of confrontation. Before the first game of the NFL season in September, a small batch of fans in Kansas City booed the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs during a pregame display of unity. On Monday night in Atlanta, LeBron James had a heated exchange with some Hawks fans sitting courtside. The fans were ejected.
It was a thing — a random, vulgar thing — and it could have exploded into an even bigger story. But James downplayed it.
“There was a back-and-forth between two grown men, and we said our piece,” he said. “I don’t think they should have been kicked out.”
He was more excited about the energy in the building. It was adversarial, but it still mattered. Most of the time, sports disagreements can be dismissed easily.
“I’m happy fans are back in the building,” James told reporters that night. “I miss that interaction. I need that interaction. We, as players, need that interaction.”
Before all this chaos, increased fan violence and vitriol was a concern. That could intensify, especially because athletes are becoming more outspoken, challenging norms and making power plays. But Olmsted expects the good to dominate the bad.
Super Bowl LV will be a restrained spectacle, but it will feel larger than any American sports production since Super Bowl LIV. It should capture the nation’s imagination, with a dream quarterback matchup of Patrick Mahomes vs. Tom Brady, two exciting offenses and playmakers all over the field. But in the Super Bowl, oatmeal could square off against Cream of Wheat, and 100 million people would watch. The pandemic can’t stop the event from feeling gigantic, and social media will be the primary mechanism to gauge the intensity of interest and to connect with the world.
Community, though dependent on technology, will exist, at least for one precious day. It will feel weird, but there is connection even in shared oddity. And that will feel good, taking one figurative step toward normal living, toward each other.