Sports mat­ter in these times

Events serv­ing as pos­i­tive dis­trac­tions missed dur­ing pan­demic

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Mike Sielski

More than 91,000 peo­ple in the United States, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol, have died from the coro­n­avirus, and still we want sports to re­turn.

In April, 20.5 mil­lion Amer­i­cans lost their jobs, a record for a sin­gle month, and the un­em­ploy­ment rate keeps rock­et­ing higher and higher, and still we want sports to re­turn.

We wear our masks. We take our walks. We so­cially distance. We home-school our kids. We for­get which day it is be­cause they all feel the same. We worry when our loved ones cough. And still we want sports to re­turn.

This might sound sur­pris­ing. This is not sur­pris­ing.

Spit tests for Ma­jor League Base­ball play­ers? Hell, yes. The NBA and MLS play­ing games at Walt Dis­ney World? We’d sit through “It’s a Small World” a thou­sand times if it meant we could see Joel Em­biid shimmy or Kawhi Leonard load-man­age or Stephen Curry flush an­other three.

Twenty four teams in the NHL play­offs? Just tell us one thing: Do the Fly­ers still have a shot at the Stan­ley Cup?

Give us golf. Give us NASCAR. Give us shuf­fle­board. Give us a 10-hour, five-week doc­u­men­tary/ ha­giog­ra­phy about a man who hasn’t played an NBA game in 17 years. Just give us some­thing.

This might sound in­ap­pro­pri­ate, as if our pri­or­i­ties are mis­placed. This is not in­ap­pro­pri­ate. This is not a sign that we have not taken the pan­demic se­ri­ously enough. This is nat­u­ral. This is ex­pected. This is the im­por­tance that sports has, the role that sports plays, in our cul­ture.

This is why:

If you want to get to the heart of why sports mat­ter so much to us, why we’re in such a hurry to have them re­sume, you have to con­sider the im­pli­ca­tions and power of two seem­ingly un­re­lated words.

The first of those words is per­fec­tion, and if, upon read­ing that word, your mind im­me­di­ately went to Don Larsen in 1956, Roy Hal­la­day in 2010, Julius Erv­ing in flight, or Gritty tat­tooed on your der­riere, you’re not far off. The al­lure of sports, at least in part, is born of the nat­u­ral hu­man de­sire for tran­scen­dence, to achieve or bear wit­ness to or be as­so­ci­ated with some­thing big­ger, deeper, and more mean­ing­ful than what­ever hap­pens to oc­cupy the rest of our time.

We ex­pe­ri­ence a run­ner’s high 30 min­utes and 1 sec­ond into our early-morn­ing jog. We see Bryce Harper bar­rel-up a 99mph fast­ball and blast it into the up­per deck of Cit­i­zens Bank Park and try to imag­ine it: the sen­sa­tion of ball giv­ing against bat, the crowd’s jet-en­gine sound in our ears, the knowl­edge that one man, The Hit­ter, faced an­other man, The Pitcher, in the arena and there was a clear and de­ci­sive vic­tor.

“Do you win? Do you lose?” Six­ers coach Brett Brown said. “There’s a com­pet­i­tive side in all of us, and you might not get that in your nor­mal source of em­ploy­ment.”

We see Michael Jor­dan lift off from the foul line, shift the bas­ket­ball from his right hand to his left hand in midair, spin it off the back­board and through the hoop like he’s flip­ping a coin, and won­der why no one else can play with the same com­bi­na­tion of anger and artistry. It is cap­ti­vat­ing be­cause it is phys­i­cal.

We see Ryan New­man walk away from a ter­ri­fy­ing crash at Day­tona and get be­hind the wheel again less than three months later, or we see Kerri Strug nail a vault at the 1996 Sum­mer Olympics on one healthy leg, with a gold medal on the line, and we won­der how the hell they can do it. It is cap­ti­vat­ing be­cause it is brave.

“That is why ath­let­ics are im­por­tant,” the nov­el­ist and sportswrit­er Brian Glanville once wrote. “They demon­strate the scope of hu­man pos­si­bil­ity, which is un­lim­ited. The in­con­ceiv­able is con­ceived, and then it is ac­com­plished.”

It is no co­in­ci­dence that the an­cient Greeks cre­ated the Olympics to honor the god Zeus and the Her­aean Games to honor the god­dess Hera, and it is no co­in­ci­dence that sports has re­tained so prom­i­nent and significan­t a place in our so­ci­ety, even dur­ing a pan­demic, while church at­ten­dance has de­clined over the last two decades.

We have learned more about the world and how things work in it, how be­ings sur­vive and thrive in it, and those an­swers ap­pear to be right in front of us at all times. The mys­tery of the past is gone. Did Babe Ruth really call his shot? No one really knows, be­cause no one was close enough to know, so the story re­mains rooted in myth. Now, how did LeBron James block that shot? Ah, well, here’s how fast he was run­ning, how high he jumped, and how much ground he cov­ered, down to the mile-per-hour and the mil­lime­ter.

“These ath­letes, most peo­ple adore them,” said Karin Volk­wein-Caplan, a pro­fes­sor of ki­ne­si­ol­ogy at West Chester Univer­sity. “There is the need for hu­mans to look for some­thing per­fect, and here they’re see­ing it with their real eyes and ex­pe­ri­ences and re­al­ity. They can even touch them. They can even feel close to them, get sig­na­tures from them. So it’s a real ex­pe­ri­ence rather than ‘God is on your side, and he’s help­ing and guid­ing you through these dif­fi­cult times.’ It’s some­thing tan­gi­ble.”

The gods and their gifts aren’t in­vis­i­ble any­more. They’re there for all of us to see, on TV, on the court a few feet away. They talk. They tweet. And when they’re not there, we miss them.

That brings us to the other word: con­nec­tion. Sports gives kids a chance to spend time with their friends and peers. It gives a lit­tle girl a chance to see that there have been and are other lit­tle girls who are like her, who wanted to play point guard or be a mid­fielder or wres­tle.

It gives strangers some­thing to talk about at happy hours and big bar­be­cues. It gives a head­strong son some­thing to talk about with his head­strong fa­ther when they can’t talk about any­thing else. It pro­vides peo­ple with a sense of iden­tity, of com­mu­nity, of self-worth and hap­pi­ness.

There is a term, used by aca­demics, called “BIRGing”: Bask­ing in Re­flected Glory. Sports is the ideal set­ting for it. These days, that tribal pull is stronger than just about any other af­fil­i­a­tion.

The two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties are weaker than they’ve ever been. The num­ber of peo­ple who de­scribe them­selves as Chris­tian, ac­cord­ing to Pew Re­search, has dropped by 12% over the last decade, and the num­ber of athe­ists, ag­nos­tics, and peo­ple who iden­tify with “noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar” rose by 9%.

Sports iden­tity and al­le­giance last for­ever, though. Couldn’t Nick Foles still get elected mayor of Philadel­phia if he threw his hat in the ring this fall? How many lapsed Catholics were de­voted mem­bers of the Cult of Sam Hinkie? What is be­ing a sports fan if it’s not seiz­ing the op­por­tu­nity to view your­self through the prism of the teams or ath­letes or fig­ures to which you’ve aligned your­self? To cel­e­brate their vic­to­ries? To mourn their fail­ures?

“When our teams are suc­cess­ful, we as­so­ciate our­selves with those teams and im­part some of that suc­cess on us,” said Jeremy Jor­dan, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in Tem­ple Univer­sity’s School of Sport, Tourism, and Hos­pi­tal­ity Man­age­ment.

“When they’re not, we try to distance our­selves. Very sim­ply, af­ter the Ea­gles won the Su­per Bowl, how much Ea­gles gear did you see when you were walk­ing around the streets of Philadel­phia?”

Philadel­phi­ans BIRG like no one else, but the phe­nom­e­non doesn’t hap­pen only here. When Brown was a se­nior guard at South Port­land High School in Maine, the team went 29-0 and won the state cham­pi­onship.

“And I come back in a bus at 17 years old through the city,” he said, “and ev­ery­body’s out on the lawn with cow­bells and stream­ers. They still talk about us in that lit­tle com­mu­nity in Maine like we were the Chicago Bulls.”

Now it’s gone, all of it, and there’s a void, and we’re ea­ger for it to be filled. The trick is weigh­ing the risks and costs.

“It’s a dif­fi­cult co­nun­drum with no to­tally sat­is­fy­ing an­swers,” said David Maraniss, the au­thor of best­selling books on Vince Lom­bardi, Roberto Cle­mente, and the 1960 Rome Olympics.

“Sports, es­pe­cially spec­ta­tor sports, are the rare events that con­sis­tently bring vast num­bers of peo­ple to­gether who have lit­tle else in com­mon. They might be of any race, any ide­ol­ogy, any eco­nomic strata, but they root for the same team — whether it’s the Ea­gles or Pack­ers or Yan­kees or Dodgers or Alabama or Ohio State.

“It’s such a vi­tal part of life for many mil­lions of peo­ple around the world, bring­ing joy and com­mu­nal bond­ing that seem more needed than ever. But one thing any good coach will tell you is that to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful and thriv­ing team you have to build on a solid foun­da­tion, smartly an­a­lyze the sit­u­a­tion, and sac­ri­fice short-term thrills for long-term sat­is­fac­tion and re­sults.”

In weigh­ing those fac­tors, there’s a dis­tinc­tion worth mak­ing. Anec­do­tally, the pub­lic might be shift­ing its pref­er­ence to­ward re­sum­ing as much of nor­mal life is pos­si­ble, now that the nec­es­sary pe­riod of quar­an­tine, un­der the prom­ise of flat­ten­ing the virus’ curve, has lasted two months.

But there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween want­ing to watch a sport­ing event from the safety and com­fort of a liv­ing room or man cave and be­ing will­ing to buy a ticket to one. A May 12 poll by the data-col­lec­tion firm FiveThir­tyEight showed that 58% of Amer­i­cans were “not at all likely“to at­tend a sport­ing event in per­son, even if gov­ern­ment re­stric­tions were lifted.

And even if the games — Ma­jor League Base­ball’s reg­u­lar sea­son, the NBA and NHL play­offs — do be­gin again later this sum­mer, the ex­pe­ri­ence of go­ing to one won’t be the same. The in­ter­ac­tions, the ges­tures, all the as­pects that make at­tend­ing a sport­ing event a com­mu­nal ex­pe­ri­ence — will we carry them out? Will we be al­lowed to?

“At a nor­mal game, there are peo­ple high-fiv­ing, hug­ging, peo­ple who haven’t even met be­fore,” Jor­dan said. “Now we’re go­ing to ask you to sit by your­self and air-five the per­son sit­ting six feet away from you.”

When the time is right, it will feel like a small re­quest. Peo­ple will wel­come it. No one should be sur­prised when they do.


Venues such as Amer­i­canAir­lines Arena in Mi­ami have re­mained empty since mid-March as sports went on a hia­tus dur­ing the pan­demic.

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