You could argue that, as a fan of Detroit teams, I haven’t had much “sports” to watch in recent years anyway. And you could argue that, given the harms caused by its excesses, it’s about time that the sports industrial complex took a breather.
Certainly this historic halt of sports—suspended seasons from the NBA, NHL, MLB, XFL, the Euroleague, and all major soccer leagues; canceled championships from March Madness and a raft of other college sports, including hockey, baseball, softball, track and field, swimming and diving, wrestling, and gymnastics; canceled PGA Tour and tennis tournaments; and postponements from the Masters and the Boston and London marathons— is the right thing to do for public health. Amidst the rising threat from the novel coronavirus, it is heartening to see that we have our priorities straight.
At the same time, to have a huge part of our cultural life cut off like this — abruptly, indefinitely, and with such totality—is a shock. Today, as it happens, is Selection Sunday, when the men’s and women’s March Madness brackets are usually set, and we all start thinking about which 12 seed is really going to upset which 5. Well, not this year.
I grieve for the athletes. I grieve for our loss as fans. It’s like I woke up one morning to find all my best buddies suddenly moved out of the neighborhood, all at once, to places unknown.
Sports is nothing if not a portal for storytelling, each season a new chapter in a book that many of us have been reading for decades. An ancient book, really, and one that we have a compulsion to reenact. Think of the rituals associated with the most ancient games of all, the Olympics. This year’s installment is scheduled to open in Japan in late July. Japan and the IOC insist for now that the Games will go on. But the age-old ritual of the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony in Greece was held Thursday with no spectators, and the torch relay through Greece was suspended Friday. Think of kids playing out last night’s sports highlights in the backyard.
“It’s just a game” is a cliché that is both true and not true. Here we have one of the few public squares where adults have permission to play. Besides bringing wholehearted joy and inspiration to an enormous number of people, sports are a cue for grown people to sing together, to chant, to dress up in costumes and common colors, to joke around. The whole spectrum of emotion, from sorrow to unbridled delight, becomes a shared experience, as we comfort one another and celebrate with perfect strangers. Sports are aesthetically beautiful, too: the body in motion, the awe-inspiring feats of physical intelligence, the vivid sensory experience of sitting high in the grandstands on a spring afternoon.
This is not a small loss.
Sports are a mechanism for stitching communities together, giving us a sense of profound connection with others across space and time. In both triumph and loss, it is a place to build ties with people who are very different from ourselves. I can’t tell you how often chitchat about the merits of Michigan’s football team has helped me bond with everyone from men who are homeless to high-powered executives, from strangers at the bar to people who are incarcerated at the prison where I’ve volunteered. In a world with so many divisions, sports are a powerful counterforce.
It is our venue for debate and hope, power and vulnerability, individual and collective triumph, destiny and luck, hard work and serendipity. Its charge comes as it moves through the contradictions.
What stories will we tell now? What else could possibly fill in as a substitute?
That’s what people are really asking when they wonder about how ESPN will fill its broadcast in coming weeks, to say nothing of niche sports channels like the Big Ten Network and NBA TV, or newspaper sports pages. “I’m devastated that we don’t get to follow these players’ stories and perhaps even tell some of them on our own,” wrote Anthony Broome at the Maize n Brew fan site. “I sat here in front of a blank screen for about four hours not even knowing what to say.”
You can only stretch studio shows about the impact of the coronavirus and NFL free agency (at this point, still on schedule) so far. You can only publish so many lonely shots of empty arenas.
Some think the networks should air classic seasons in full—re-reading the book, as it were, or catching up on the chapters we missed. Repeat airings of sports documentaries are already in the mix. Alas, it’s not unlike what the Detroit sports outlets have already been doing as our four major pro teams have struggled: lots of pieces about the anniversary of this or that big game; features about how great athletes who used to play under the Olde English D—hello Max Scherzer, and five key members of the 2018 Boston Red Sox—are flourishing elsewhere.
Others have suggested filling air-time with a virtual tournament where the public votes on the best teams or athletes of the century — a catalyst to re-tell our favorite stories to each other, as you do at a high school reunion or (alas) when a loved one dies. Broome at Maize n Brew specifically asked readers what they could do to be of service. “If you want a restaurant ranking or review, you got it. If you want a thread open at the start of every day to vent about whatever, say no more.”
It feels like a cold and strange thing to enter a world without sports. Even though we know it is temporary. Even though we know it is for the best.
I don’t want to be glib about how fans will cope, but I do think that if we break down why we love sports so much –playfulness, connectivity, storytelling, challenge, and emotional range – we can begin to imagine other ways of creating that in our new normal.
And the next time we hear the starting whistle, we’ll appreciate it all the more.