Worry is an addictive substance. It is like any thought pattern in that regard. The line between evolutionary utility and neurosis is one of those boundaries that you rarely recognize before it is in the rearview. The deeper you go inside of the city limits, the more comfortable it becomes. The more comfortable it becomes, the more difficult it is to shake.
Yet shake it, we must. It has been a long two years, so long that it can be easy to forget that these years cannot stretch on forever. Maybe the second Christmas Eve of these unprecedented times is the perfect time to start contemplating our escape.
For as long as I can remember, sports and Christmas have been intertwined. It used to drive my grandmother crazy, watching men in jerseys doing their jobs while the rest of us sat sipping hot chocolate and shaking wrapping paper shards off the footsies of our pajamas. Good grief, she’d say, what about their families? Making them play on Christmas. Is nothing sacrosanct?
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that we are here at the current juncture, sports and Santa and pandemic colliding at a three-way junction. One day before Christmas Eve, another litany of names added to the protocols. The Saints are now without their top three quarterbacks, two of them due to COVID. Over in the NBA, nearly 100 players have spent time in the league’s pandemic protocol this month. The night before Christmas, and all through the house churned a familiar storm of tweets and headlines that reinforced this learned behavior that says that everything is doom. I like to think that Grandma will be looking down, wishing for a game with all 10 starters.
The important thing is to acknowledge that such a wish is within our reach. We no longer need to swear fealty to this virus. We no longer need to filter our opinions through that prism.
“This is not March of 2020,” said the president himself in a speech on Tuesday. “Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated. We’re prepared. We know more.”
It is a message that all of us must internalize, and we must allow our sports leagues to do likewise. Since the start of this thing, the holidays and the playing fields have served as our mile markers of progress. From Fourth of July outside to canceled Thanksgiving to Memorial Day celebrations among the newly inoculated. From bubble-wrapped Disney ballrooms to empty arenas to half-filled stadiums and then finally full attendance. Like worry, progress can be a difficult state to recognize when you are in the midst of it. There is much to be proud of, within locker rooms and families.
Yet we have further to go, and the first step toward getting there is recognizing where we are. This coronavirus is no longer novel, at least not in the casual sense of the word. We must recognize that it is here to stay, and that our lives must carry on with it. To admit as much is not defeatism. It is scientific consensus.
“When you are talking about a virus that is ubiquitous, that is not going to be eradicated, that is not going to be eliminated, you have to come up with a sustainable approach,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security said in an interview on Thursday. “I think that was the theme of the president’s speech. When you are getting mild infections or asymptomatic infections of vaccinated individuals, that’s nothing to panic about. For so long, people have panicked about it, so it is going to take some time to tone that down.”
This, then, is a call for toning it down. It’s a call for not only accepting the NFL’s decision to loosen its COVID testing policy for vaccinated players, but for congratulating the league for doing so. It’s a call for not only acknowledging the scientific validity of the NBA’s reported decision to shorten its quarantine period, but for appreciating it’s necessity.
This is not a call for ignoring the very real nature of the disease, nor for writing off its staggering death toll as the cost of doing business in a society that can only function when the turnstiles keep on twirling (do we still have turnstiles?). It’s the opposite, in fact. The nature of the disease is that it is a much more manageable public health issue than it was two years ago. Two years ago, we needed to hit pause. Now, we have the tools to protect our most vulnerable individuals and institutions. The vaccines are here. The antivirals are coming. The high-risk populations have been identified. This is a call for normalizing a desire for normalcy, for allowing space in our discourse for the conversations that must be had in order to achieve an optimal version of it. The pursuit of a less COVID-centric world need not be accompanied by guilt.
Among the many cracks in our foundation that this pandemic has exposed is the abysmal state of our public sphere. From the very beginning, the conversations that most warranted our capability for sober deliberation were instead conducted at the top of our lungs. Should we shut down the economy? To what extent? For how long? To what end? Should we keep our children out of their schools, off of their athletic fields, away from their play spaces? Should we tell our elderly to forfeit births, weddings, holidays, the ability to communally grieve, knowing full well that each opportunity they forfeit may have been their last? How do you balance the potential that Grandma dies from a Christmas COVID infection with the potential that she dies from something else without having had another Christmas?
These were heavy questions, and they deserved heavy consideration, meticulous inquiry, a respectful back-and-forth, all of it conducted with a mutual understanding that differing opinions are not evidence of bad faith. Instead, we spent the years slinging rhetorical spears, coating their tips with poisoned tongues spewing allegations of heartlessness and shame, of cowardice and subjugation. An event that began with a near unanimous agreement that none of us knew anything about COVID-19 quickly morphed into a shouting match between people who knew with near certainty how best to combat the disease. There are very few worlds in which that would make sense, but ours is apparently one of them.
We cannot continue to live in that world. My yuletide wish is that our sports leagues continue to help ease us away from it. Think about where you were two years ago. There’s no shame in going to bed tonight with the hope that we can be back in that place next Christmas.