There comes a moment in every crisis when our culture gathers to declare solemnly that sports are not “important.” And let me join the chorus here in saying that this week, right now, and probably for quite some time ahead, sports are, indeed, not “important.” But behind that pro forma, though very genuine, declaration lies a deeper and more complex truth: The impact of sports on the daily lives of many Americans (and far beyond America, but let’s keep it domestic for now) tells the story of an institution that sure looks like something important from a distance. Millions attend games and many millions more consume those games remotely. Their lives are emotionally affected by the outcomes. Another subset of the population works at those games, deriving income and supporting families. Their lives are financially affected by the existence of the games.
Important is a word, like all words, that shifts in ultimate meaning, hopelessly dependent on context. What was important four days ago is less important today. But absolutism doesn’t fit.
We all have our stories, large and small. Nineteen years ago this coming September, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 provided unimaginable context. Sports were shut down for more than a week. Unimportant. (Until they came back; see below). This moment landed fully for me only when, five days after the attacks, for a story in Sports Illustrated, I visited the Staten Island home of New England Patriots’ offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi, where three brothers were New York City fireman. Waiting to eat his mom’s Sunday dinner of pasta and meatballs, I sat on the front stoop with Joe and, for a while, talked about … football.
Some details have faded. But Joe talked about how, despite the fact that he played only at a Division II college, he found that football is football and if you hit an NFL defensive tackle hard enough, you can push him off the ball, too. They bleed like anybody else. We spoke not with reverence, but simply because it was a language we shared. Sports were not important. Minutes later, Joe’s younger brother, Jimmy would emotionally describe running out of Tower 2 minutes before it collapsed. But sports were present in our thoughts, keeping us company. It was a Sunday afternoon in September and there were no NFL games. It was fully and unassailably appropriate that there were no games, but strange, nevertheless.
Last Wednesday night was less dramatic. I was sitting at my kitchen table watching an NBA game on my laptop, the Miami Heat against the Charlotte Hornets (a guy from my college plays for the Heat, so I’ve adopted them), and toggling back and forth to social media and news sites to monitor the news. In the fourth quarter of the game came word that the NBA had suspended its season (and shortly after, the reason for that suspension – Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19). It was a stunning moment which may have triggered the cascade of coronavirus-related postponements that followed. Meanwhile, the game continued on my laptop. And I continued to watch, for which I have no good excuse. It wasn’t even an entertaining game. I was detached, yet engaged. Like talking to an idle football player on an NFL Sunday, with the rubble from the towers visible in the distance, 19 years earlier.
The next day, Thursday March 12, was historically disruptive. In rapid succession – yet almost randomly – college conference tournaments were cancelled, including one, the Big East, which was at halftime of a noon game. Soon afterward, the entire NCAA Tournament and all spring sports, were cancelled. (The Ivy League had done this two days earlier, to much criticism). The NHL and Major League Baseball shut down. On Friday morning The Masters and the Boston Marathon were postponed, the former indefinitely and the latter until September. The Kentucky Derby, scheduled for May 2 with a crowd well north of 150,000, is realistically up next, having already put the word “postponed” in a press release. The Olympic Games loom in the distance; thus far the International Olympic Committee has remained surprisingly and unequivocally confident in its public stance. Thousands of athletes await what is for most a singular opportunity, doused in uncertainty they didn’t need or desire.
All of this does two things: One, it drives home the seriousness of the health issue facing the United States and the world. (Perhaps it should not have needed driving home, but these times we live in can be confusing). Two, it underscores, with less urgency but analogous longing, the role that sports play in the lives of many Americans. The games will be gone, and even amidst everything else that inconveniences us, and frightens us, the absence of those games will be profoundly felt.
I have made my living providing sports content for more than four decades. (I would not have used that phrasing – providing sports content – four decades ago). But just as significantly, I have also been a fan. Many times I’ve finished a day’s work and immediately grabbed a beer and turned on a game that I’m not covering. I’d like to say this is rather like your plumber waking up on Saturday morning and unclogging some toilets just for fun. But we all know that’s an unfair metaphor, because watching the games is fun. You get the idea.
Most of us who care about these things (that is not all of us, not by a long shot; more than 175 million Americans don’t watch the Super Bowl), can trace the arc of our lives through sports. Me? The first sporting event I remember taking place was the 1964 World Series. The first game I attended live was between the Mets and Giants at Shea Stadium in 1965. Willie McCovey hit a home run off the right field foul pole. Later that year I saw Jim Brown’s last game at Yankee Stadium; he ran onto the field without his helmet and looked like a god. Many years later I sat ringside when Mike Tyson knocked out a bunch of people. I was courtside when Christian Laettner beat Kentucky. In the press box when David Tyree caught a pass with his helmet. Always games.
Many years later I was in Pittsburgh reporting a story on the Steelers, leading into a Super Bowl. It was a Wednesday and my son had a hockey game back at home. I booked flights. But I needed to ask Hines Ward a question and he was late getting to the locker room, so I waited out the scrum, fired off my question and then drove to the airport irresponsibly fast and made the game. Two years earlier I had missed my daughter’s team winning a state championship in rowing because I was babysitting Barbaro in an equine hospital. Games, by another name, but still games. Too many to count or remember.
The spring is a remarkable time in American sports. The centerpiece is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. There are many problems with the major college sports system in the United States, but March Madness is a near-perfect distillation of everything we cherish about sports: It has giant programs and little ones, and sometimes the little ones win. It has unscripted drama that ends in ways we can’t imagine but yet which we expect it to deliver. It has brackets. And for this year, it’s gone.
The Masters comes in early April, just as the Stanley Cup and NBA Playoffs are getting underway. Soon after: The Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown. It is an embarrassment of fans’ riches in a way that even the autumn, with its exhilarating succession of Saturdays and Sundays, is not. It is the difference between the silence of Augusta and the roar of Churchill Downs. Between a power play in overtime and three-pointer at the horn. It is cutting down nets late on a Monday night in early April. It is everything we love about sports and more of it than we can embrace. All gone. Even more painful in some ways: Thousands of college and high school athletes have lost their senior seasons, a once in a lifetime experience, both by definition and emotion. (Again, not infecting elderly family members with a deadly virus is more important than senior year, but that doesn’t make the pain any less real).
It is the culture’s fallback position, both as criticism and self-defense, to call sports escapism. But they are something more than that. In the age of social media, they are where we gather, even when we are not gathered. They are what we share, when we can’t agree on anything else, here in our fractured 2020. We can disagree on whether Tiger can win again or whether Maximum Security should have been taken down (a more complex matter as of this week, as it turns out) and walk away friends, unlike after so much of our heated political discourse. But that word – escapism – doesn’t do it justice. We don’t escape to sports, we immerse ourselves in them. It’s a subtle difference, but if you have been gutted by a team’s defeat, or elevated by its win, you understand.
Back to 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center, sports created a central rallying point for the nation. It was not that the games became too important, but that they were something the country could share. Too often sports are given credit for a power they don’t possess, but in this case, there was no hyperbole.
The hell of the present is that we have lost that oasis. The nation and the world are facing a crisis unlike nearly any living human has experienced. Perhaps it is neither as bad as the worst prognostications or as benign as the most promising ones. There are better places than here for that discussion. It is virtually certain that most Americans will be more isolated than is customary in our modern world. It is a time when sports might have connected us across our shared uncertainty, but instead they have been shut down because sustaining them would likely have made us sicker by bringing us too close. The opposite of escapism.
The future is as uncertain as the present. Perhaps we will see an autumn for the ages, a healthy nation consuming the Masters, the Triple Crown and the NFL and college football together. Perhaps it will be longer. There is a vague awareness that sports will return, but that awareness seems almost untouchable in the present, far away.
Yet in this moment, by what is absent from our lives, it’s ever clear: Sports are important, just not important right now. And it’s OK to miss them.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.