When sports aren't a distraction at all
To be a sports fan has always entailed a certain level of desperation. There are the obvious cases — lovers of one hapless franchise or another who want nothing more than to see their team win a championship before they die. After the Chicago Cubs broke their 108-year World Series drought in 2016, there were endless stories about aged Cubs fans who had either lasted long enough to see Kris Bryant's clinching throw to first — or, sadly, hadn't.
Then there's the more commonplace desperation — the raw need that drives many of us to devote huge chunks of our lives to watching strangers play games far better than we ever could. Professional athletes' excellence promises to transport us from the banality of our lives; what's amazing is that the promise is so consistently kept. From a meaningless baseball game in which an astounding catch is made to the greatest Super Bowl ever, sports have the unique potential to move us at any time.
So when the leagues began their COVID-induced shuttering in March — first the NBA, then the NHL, then Major League Baseball and the rest — fans expressed a nervous, but reasoned, alarm: sure, there wouldn't be sports for a while — but we'd flatten the curve; the games would be back soon. In the meantime, there were classic ballgames on YouTube, Jordan's Bulls on ESPN. It wouldn't be so bad.
But as the virus metastasized, fans' need, always deep, became nearly bottomless. One study found, unsurprisingly, that fans missed watching sports more than any other COVID-impacted activity — including attending church, eating at restaurants, and going to movies. Like a castaway forced to eat whatever washes ashore, people turned to South Korean baseball, powerlifting, competitive cornhole. The NFL draft in April felt nearly miraculous: "In one of the most abnormal times we'll ever experience, the draft gave us a few hours of fresh entertainment that resembled normalcy," wrote The Tampa Bay Times. "We had something to cheer (or boo) again." Though it was little more than a glorified Zoom call, it nonetheless served the need.
As the major sports have made their slow return, viewers have flocked to their screens; baseball's first night back drew ESPN's largest-ever opening-day audience, and the NBA's first games drew similarly well. But since the pandemic is not now, as expected, in America's rearview, but rather at its worst, a paradox has been created: we need the games more than ever to keep our minds from the reality of the disease. But that disease, still raging, has infiltrated sports themselves — so no matter what Shane Bieber or Devin Booker does, COVID is impossible to forget.
This was never more evident than last week, when baseball's two main stories came from opposite sides of the coronavirus divide. "Is Aaron Judge Really Back to His Early-2017 Form?" The Ringer asked about the New York Yankees slugger who'd hit six home runs through his previous five games. It's the sort of stakes-free chatter that has for decades fueled sports media and barroom debates (back when our debates weren't centered on the bars themselves). Such questions are essentially meaningless, and therefore irresistible. (The answer to this one, if you're curious, was maybe.)
On the same day, the same website ran a far more sober piece: "Complications From COVID-19 Have Ended Eduardo Rodríguez's Season." Rodríguez, who was to have been the Boston Red Sox' opening-day starting pitcher, was diagnosed with the virus in July, and now suffers from myocarditis, which "weakens the heart, creates scar tissue and forces it to work harder to circulate blood and oxygen throughout the body." Given the uncertainties surrounding COVID, nobody knows if he will recover fully, and what this means for his career — a sad circumstance for a 27-year-old who was just coming into his own. With three teams already thrown into coronavirus limbo since the season's start, baseball has been a distraction in the most unwelcome way.
So this is where we're at: after months of waiting, we can finally watch live games — only to find that they carry a whistling-past-the-graveyard quality. This is unrelated to the empty stands, the elbow-bumps, the facemasks on sidelines. Those things are aesthetic, and have become part of our usual sportstalk: a lack of NBA fans has apparently resulted in better shooting; an Atlanta Braves home run struck a cutout of an opposing player's dog. What's less fun to discuss are byproducts of our epidemiological failure: say, that the Yankees played the Baltimore Orioles because the teams' originally-scheduled opponents both had to be quarantined. Or the fact that the Brooklyn Nets have so many unfamiliar faces because several of their key players have tested positive. Or that a Major League Soccer altercation between Toronto and D.C. United wasn't caused by a penalty or a dirty play, but anger over testing protocols.
Far from being an eclipsing distraction from the coronavirus, sports are now reflecting how very far we are from defeating it. So we got the games we'd wanted so badly in the spring — but they're not as easy to focus on as we might have hoped. Maybe that's how it should be when a young pitcher's career might now plausibly be over. Or when St. Louis Cardinals players keep testing positive. There was a time when sports were laughingly referred to as "life or death" — because, of course, we took them too seriously. But the phrase now feels a little uncomfortable. It's too close to a truth we desperately want to forget.