For the past few years, I’ve felt that writing about sports during this period in history might, in hindsight, seem like a frivolous, almost embarrassing job. Sportswriters often make fun of themselves for working in the “toy department.” But we have plenty of pride in what we do. Would that change? Would I almost feel ashamed?
But I’ve had it exactly backward — luckily, not a new experience for me.
Within hours of the State of the Union address, I realized that sports — sports conversation and our fact-based, generally civil behavior when we talk about games — has never been nearly as important to us as it is right now. While the United States doesn’t quite have universal sports literacy yet, it’s darn close. And we need it.
We have a president whose ideal world is one in which no one talks about anything except him. The only thing he enjoys almost as much as being loved is being hated so he can have someone to detest and denounce in public. His Twitter account is an endless scream for attention. He feeds violent emotions because that’s his nature or his lifelong strategic business approach.
But his impact on our daily life, our normal American standards of civility and the personal relationship of hundreds of millions of people is staggeringly divisive. Last week my wife and I went to dinner with a couple of longtime friends. They said, “We’ve given up having anything to do with anybody who doesn’t agree with us on politics. Life is too short. You can’t change anybody’s mind these days.”
On Sunday evening, there were Super Bowl parties all over America. The game may have been a bore. But for four hours, at least people knew that they could steer their discussion, laughter, criticism, analysis or just plain buzzed goofiness toward something that everyone enjoys and — more important — about which people can speak, debate and argue in just the same way they have all their lives.
For example, I thought it was marvelously appropriate, as well as ironic, that the most valuable player of the Super Bowl was Julian Edelman, who was suspended for the first four games of this season after testing positive for a banned substance. Perfect: The if-you-ain’t-cheatin’-you-ain’t-tryin’ Pats have a PED MVP.
Minutes after the game, ex-NFLer Boomer Esiason said Edelman, despite regular season statistics that are dwarfed by a couple hundred wide receivers, should be in the Hall of Fame someday based almost entirely on his postseason excellence, including the Pats’ last three runs to Super Bowl wins. When Edelman missed the 2017 season because of a knee injury, the Pats lost the Super Bowl.
“Boomer, you are an idiot,” I said, shaking my head. But I was smiling.
This illustrates how sports is one of the remaining subjects — thank heaven for gardening, cooking and home renovation — where we still can disagree without wanting to strangle each other. Of course, I’m excluding the drunken moron in a team jersey who goes to a stadium intending to get in a brawl. I mean the rest of us — the semi-sane 95 percent.
Sports, give or take a knee, or an acceptance or rejection of a White House visit, or a chance to play (or not play) golf with a man who drives his cart across his own putting greens, is still a familiar, normal place we can visit for escape.
And escape, these days, is not the same as “escapism.” Finding something that makes you feel grounded and out of danger, at least for a while, is almost a form of artificial respiration for our humanity. We all have different sports loves. But they serve a similar purpose now: Nerves that feel shredded have a moment to bind back together. Every winter I count the days until I get to cover spring training. Right now, I think I’ve gone from counting days to hours to minutes.
Sports is now one of our main “Wanna-Get-Away” flights. Don’t worry, we’ll be dragged back by the sound of partisan screeching soon enough.
As I wrote on Inauguration Day two years ago, it is curious, to say the least, that Americans are inundated with facts — solid, indisputable, universally accepted facts about almost every aspect of sports — and we love it. We adore facts. We demand them. And, when it comes to new analytics tools, we want even more of them, especially if they are created by people with advanced degrees in math, game theory or statistics.
Any argument — about why a team won or lost, what trade should be made, or about why a specific play succeeded or failed — must be based in facts, probably saturated with them, to be allowed a seat at the sports-debate table. Even when we get loud — contrast sports talk radio to political talk show rants — there is a common dense web of fact concerning sports that never gets denied or flipped with spin. Daniel Snyder can’t change his team’s 20-year record.
In sports, reality testing exists. In time, that reality testing — of teams, people, theories of how to play or coach — validates some and casts others into darkness.
In public life, political incompetents become entrenched for decades. If an NBA GM failed for 15 years, he’d be fired. Oops, bad example.
For many years, I’ve raised an eyebrow at anyone who claimed big-time sports’ societal benefits. But in our current distempered climate, I have little doubt that the habits of mind that we demand of each other when we talk about sports — civility, a sense of humor, a respect for facts and a willing to change our minds when the facts change — do us nothing but good. And, along the way, help keep us semi-sane, too.