America is in the midst of a sports binge.
On September 10, 2020, for example, you could watch an NBA playoff game or a crucial regular season victory for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics that put them in position to earn a playoff spot. You could watch Naomi Osaka win a punishing semi-final match against Jennifer Brady at the U.S. Open, or the opening game of the 2020 NFL season, a victory lap for the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. There was also an NHL playoff game that went to overtime, an MLS blowout, college football, golf, and 11 MLB games.
The dizzying abundance marked a milestone, according to the stats gurus at Elias Sports Bureau: the first time the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA, and MLS had ever played on the same day. In some ways, it made sense that the confluence of so much action would be celebrated: the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL (fairly or not, sports’ Big Four) had only played on the same day 19 times before 2020. Those happy overlaps were termed sports equinoxes for their relative rarity; this year, though, there might be four of them by the end of September, depending on how the NBA and NHL playoffs go.
You can try to watch all of the games and matches and tournaments, and some of us do — juggling screens and flipping channels, trying to catch as much of the glut as possible. But to do so feels unnatural, especially when the reason for the cornucopia is both obvious and incredibly grim. Our current sports smorgasbord only exists because of an unprecedented, uncontrolled global pandemic. Obviously. It forced the longest stretch without those Big Four sports in their history (remember when everyone watched NASCAR and the KBO for a week?), but now, even as hundreds of people still die daily due to COVID-19, they’re back with a vengeance.
Yet if sports have always been (wrongly or not) viewed as an escape, it’s impossible to think of them that way any longer. Yes, you can watch sports — revel in an extraordinary Russell Wilson pass or mind-bending Kayla McBride bucket — but you can’t look away from the masks on the sidelines. You can’t see your friends without some degree of calculated risk, much less go to a bar that has enough TVs to actually watch all the sports going on with them. You can’t ignore when the athletes simply can’t or won’t be a distraction, whether it’s because of a positive COVID test or the other, even more intractable pandemic of systemic racism in this country.
For most sport fans, the cognitive dissonance required to enjoy their favorite team or player isn’t new; stories about owners or players or leagues that show their sour, cynical, profit-driven underbelly always come to the surface. But right now, when everything feels upside-down, those fissures that might have previously been ignored are cracking; the tensions between those with power (leagues and owners) and those without it (players) are wound as tightly as they’ve ever been, just as they are in the streets around the country. It is, perversely, an especially good time to launch this column, which I hope will explore the sports world through its structures — looking at specific problems through a wide enough lens that its core inequalities and imbalances come into focus.
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At this moment, which feels like all possible zeniths and climaxes at once, sports have been presented as a pacifier — but it hasn’t really worked. Sports commentator and reporter Jane McManus offered a relevant comment early in the pandemic that has since been frequently paraphrased: “Sports are the effect of a functioning society – not the precursor.” I fully agree with the sentiment, in that there is no sense in any sports happening right now; that to do so, as has been proven by countless COVID-19 cases in athletes and staff, is self-evidently reckless.
But sports have always served as a mirror to all the ways in which our society doesn’t function. The pandemic, and the groundswell of popular movements and protest that have happened during it, have simply magnified that mirror, taken it out of exposés and niche analysis and onto screens full of mostly Black athletes wearing uniforms that insist their lives matter, into press conferences where bumbling college football coaches can’t help saying the quiet part out loud — that they only care about their players’ health insofar as it’s necessary for them to win. Yes, we’re being sold a feast, but it may as well be some cake in hopes that we won’t prepare the guillotines (or start a union); it’s up to fans and players alike to prove it’s far too late for that.