If you’ve ever spoken to me in person, which, given that a pandemic struck four weeks after I began taking classes here, you probably haven’t, you might have picked up that I like sports.
The logic follows that I like watching sports in person. A lot. In fact, in my 35 years, I’ve been to roughly 600 professional or major college sporting events across the planet. Baseball and a sumo tournament in Japan? Yup. Gaelic football in Ireland? You bet. English and American football in England? Sure, why not? The fact that I have a tendency to revolve travel plans around what sporting event I can see in whichever destination can be a bit irksome for my lovely and very understanding wife, but because I’m among the luckiest men I know, she generally humors me anyway.
There are 123 teams in the four major North American sports leagues. I have seen 80 of them play a home game in person. Last year, I went to a college basketball game between two teams I don’t care about after a good friend’s wedding ceremony and before the reception. Lord only knows how many sporting events I’ve watched on television.
Suffice it to say, the past six months have been a bit challenging for me. It has been 20 years since I attended a single-digit number of sporting events in one calendar year. As a result of the Covid-19 shutdown, my cumulative attendance in 2020 has been all of two games: an English Premier League tussle between Southampton FC and West Ham United a week before the world decided to stay inside for a while, and a positively epic showdown between basketball powerhouses Northwestern and Rutgers in early February. I suspect that total will not change before January 2021.
Just to be clear, I am not asking for sympathy and am under no delusion that my ability to attend sporting events is the primary issue in the fog of Covid fallout. There are, to put it mildly, bigger problems in the world. But I am not the only sports fan out there, and for those of us who enjoy attending a baseball game or 12 every season, this pandemic has been a fascinating, unsettling, and, at times, overwhelming ride.
On March 11, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made the quick decision to completely suspend play across the NBA following a positive test for Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert.There are some out there who believe Silver is the man most responsible for prompting Covid shutdowns in America and, by virtue of that, saving thousands of lives that might have been victim to a lack of seriousness in the face of this threat. The dominoes for North America’s remaining sports leagues fell from there, and within a week, stadiums across the U.S. had gone dark for the foreseeable future.
In early February, I was presented with the notion that sports would shut down by a more epidemiologically-aware friend. I scoffed. Months later, it is clear this was the correct decision. But since then things have gotten, well, a little weird. In the early days of the shutdown, I was among those desperately surfing channels looking for anything that might involve some sort of ball or goal area. At one point I was reduced to watching the European Tram Driving Championship, which is a very real thing ESPN aired in March and, for the record, it was entertaining as hell.
Don’t believe me? Have you ever watched a conductor collapse under pressure when trying to stop their tram on a dime? Have you seen the remarkable precision required to match up platform arrows? Can you imagine the pure ecstasy that is bowling with a tram car?
Clearly there is no format in which I cannot watch the best of the best do what they do, and as the pandemic wore on, the desperation went deeper. Before the relative familiarity of Korean baseball entered my life this spring (Go Dinos!), I went far down the rabbit hole. I watched Fox’s replay of Super Bowl XLII in its entirety as if I still wasn’t sure if Eli Manning could thread the ball through to David Tyree. I watched competitive cornhole. I absorbed video after video of Feliks Zemdegs proving he is truly the greatest speedcuber of his era in some of the most dramatic sports moments you can witness.
By June, a vague degree of normalcy came back to my life when the English Premier League and Australian Rules Football, a sport I’ve followed for more than a decade now, began to play again, but the North American scene remained bleak. March Madness was gone entirely. Baseball season, the NBA Playoffs, the Stanley Cup playoffs, all postponed indefinitely. To overstate the importance of televised sports in the grand scheme of a global catastrophe is farce, but to understate its value in making much of society feel comfort or normality is farce equally so.
For most of my adult life, the currents of the sporting calendar have played an outsized role in both my personal and professional time, and as April turned into May and then Spring into Summer, the absence of sticky subway rides to Citi Field or conversations about the latest postseason buzzerbeater were destabilizing in a very real sense. There are rhythms to a year that are curious to live without. The typical run of sports may not be the only schedule people mark time with, but it most certainly is a big one for some of us, and with the flood lights out, there was almost a Groundhog Day feel in which demarcations of time became fuzzier and fuzzier.
Then something wacky happened.
The major leagues across the world, after months of consulting with medical professionals, sorted out the logistics and felt comfortable enough to return to action. By the end of July, the NBA, the NHL and MLB had all returned to play or publicly announced their plans to do so. The NBA and NHL each implemented bubble systems in combination with aggressive testing to get their championship tournaments underway, while MLB put in place a number of revolutionary changes to game play to enable players to handle a compressed and exhausting grind.
There have been obstacles. Watching NBA and NHL games of consequence be played in empty buildings with piped-in crowd noise — in August — is both arresting and bizarre. Positive Covid tests for some MLB teams like the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals have caused seemingly insane schedule changes that will require an absurd amount of doubleheaders. But the course of true sports love never did run smooth. By early September we were collectively back in the game. In fact, we were back in all the games. Throw in the return of the NFL last week and the fact that every major springtime event that was postponed, from the Kentucky Derby to the Indianapolis 500, has been rescheduled inside a one-month window and now it’s EVERY. SPORT. ALL. THE. TIME.
To be honest, it’s kind of exhausting, and I haven’t the faintest idea how to process it all. And that’s saying something for someone who has seen multiple sporting events in different buildings on the same day multiple times in the same month. Some, and I’m not saying I’m among them, but some, might ask the unthinkable.
“Are there too many sports right now?”
I mean, no, of course there aren’t. Let’s not be silly. Even if the pandemic is likely to result in more than one Sports Equinox, it is only “too much” in the sense that sensory overload might cause a few of us to suffer aneurysms. Count me among the moneyline favorites for that fate. What has made the whole situation truly nutty is that because early rounds of the NBA and NHL’s postseasons were played in a bubble with a compressed schedule, games across the leagues couldn’t happen simultaneously in 10 different home arenas. Instead, multiple games would be played in the same facilities each day, prompting marathons of basketball and hockey that started in the early afternoon and continued until midnight. When MLB reaches its postseason next month, there will be similar bubbles that lead to similar bonanzas.
Rarely is the American sports fan able to access such a wide buffet of action. One wonders if we’ll be able to go back whenever the world returns to normal. Unfortunately, that may not be a concern we have to deal with for some time, but for now, as long as you’re being safe and socially distant, you may as well sit back and enjoy the diversion. Are the games trivial? Yes. But there is a reason FDR encouraged baseball to continue playing while the country was at war. Sometimes those trivial things aren’t so trivial. Those not so trivial things are helping some of us claw back that humanity and joy that this experience has robbed from us, even if it is overwhelming to keep track of it all. And we ought not to lose sight of the fact that many professional athletes and unknown support staffers are enduring wholly unpleasant routines and work environments to entertain us while we’re stuck at home. Yes, the players are extremely well paid, but most of the people in those bubbles aren’t, and many have also gone months without seeing their families so we can make sure we aren’t putting ours at risk.
Living through this pandemic will be a defining event for each of us. My children will hear stories of how my wife and I spent much of our first year of marriage unable to leave our apartment and somehow survived it. But they will also hear how baseball expanded its postseason field to 16 teams and the Mets (at least as it looks right now) somehow found a way not to qualify. There is a strange happiness I can derive from that. While the anxiety over when this will end remains, at least there is a little bit of the real world, however modified it may be, on our TV sets. One hopes we are all smart enough to do our part, so we don’t lose it. Otherwise, I might be writing an article next spring that once again offers analysis of the best tram drivers in Europe.
It’s gotta be the Belgians, right? They’re pretty good.
Photo credit: https://www.thelocal.de/20170608/berlin-woman-wins-european-tram-driver-championship