More than 97,000 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:
Perfection and connection
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 is born, at least in part, 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 99-mph 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 survive 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.
No one BIRGs like Philly
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.
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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 as 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.