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Sports are back! Like for real!

Ok, look. I know sports have actually been back for some time. In fact, Major League Baseball has allowed full attendance for months now, with some folks like myself attending many more New York Mets games than your doctor would recommend. In a global environment in which sharing physical space with strangers is, at best, a questionable choice, I somehow managed to go to baseball games in five different stadiums across four cities this year.

I’m not saying it was wise. I’m just saying it was possible.

Still, this fall is cause for celebration in the sports world, and here’s why. While various vaccination restrictions may or may not exist, depending on which state you’re in, football, basketball, and hockey all got underway in the past six weeks with full schedules and full houses. This is wild to think about, but the last time we had a successfully completed “normal” sports season was when the Kansas City Chiefs rallied past the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. 

That was 20 months ago. Since then, the NBA and NHL have each cobbled together two frankenseasons, MLB played one season without fans and allowed limited capacity for the first month of another, and the NFL did the unimaginable by playing a Super Bowl in a stadium filled way below capacity. For my first semester of business school, I found myself uncomfortably bereft of distractions to take the place of homework.

What a truly odd time it’s been. Thank goodness Tom Brady won a Super Bowl so we wouldn’t feel too discombobulated, amirite?

While the pandemic is not over, and capacity crowds at SEC games raise awfully interesting questions about what events could get us to herd immunity by mandating vaccines, if you’re a sports fan, it’s starting to feel like we’re just about there. Look no further than the New York Knicks’ wild double-overtime season-opening win against the Boston Celtics this past Wednesday, as a sold out Madison Square Garden percolated with the kind of excitement that only comes from witnessing Spike Lee and Dustin Hoffman high-five courtside. Nothing really says, “We’re back!” like the energy of two men with a combined age of 148.

The NFL has returned to playing in front of raucous crowds, while college football, now featuring a labor force that’s actually allowed to make money off its 50-hour work week, has made Saturday feel like Saturday again. Packed parks have reminded us that October baseball is baseball at its best, while simultaneously reminding us that Boston fans have had it way too good for the past 20 years.

Of course, the backdrop that hangs over this is that we are not yet fully free from Covid’s grip. This past week, dozens of New Yorkers still died each day from the virus, while across the country the seven-day average of deaths has been well over 1,000 since August. The struggle is not over. But as more and more of us get fully vaccinated and public spaces become less fraught with anxiety, the experience of standard in a sell-out crowd or even just watching one on TV has been revelatory.

Writing this as I watch the Clippers and Warriors trade leads late in the fourth quarter, the start of a new season, for the first time in a long time, feels, dare I say, normal. And after the past 20 months, that feeling has been much too rare.

I have been watching televised sports for 30 years. I worked in the industry for 12 of those. I have seen games in dozens of cities across the world. I recognize this is not the prism through which most people view the world, but for those of us who do, the phenomenon of a fall sports season proceeding as normal is a welcome serving of comfort food. 

There are rhythms that dictate our annual experience. This is just one of them. It does not apply to everyone. But it is one more step back toward life as we remember it. If we can take those steps where we find them, eventually we’ll get there; virus, anti-vaxxers, and the Red Sox be damned.

Am I reading too much into a normal fall season? Maybe. Could life actually be better if I didn’t have to watch the Giants lose every skill player on the roster to injury? Almost certainly. Was the Mets’ midseason collapse an unpleasant addition to my summer? Sure, but honestly that, if anything, made life feel more normal. Either way, the notion of all of these things, good or bad, gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling like seeing literally any wild outfit Spike Lee wears.

Thank goodness it’s all back. Without all four major leagues in full swing, I don’t know what I would do with myself.

What’s that? I have a midterm on Wednesday? Yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it. Eventually. Sometimes we have to prioritize.

Photo credit: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

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