Escapism by sports certainly welcomed, but tricky, in a year full of uncertainty

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There is a recurring theme that has always run through any discussion of spectator sports, which holds that they are a diversion. An escape. A safe haven from the struggles imposed upon humankind by everyday life. Even in simpler times (although times have never been all that simple), this narrative was suspect. It’s true that consuming sports – whether in person or otherwise – can be an effective release from stressful realities, but also an immersion into another type of stressful reality. Ask any weeping March Madness fan. Entertainment that might gut you emotionally can be an odd getaway choice. But let’s accept the premise: Sports are an escape. Historically speaking.

In the United States, it is now nearly four months since the Coronavirus changed life, with lockdowns waxing and waning, with numbers rising and falling, with a numbing daily dose of cognitive dissonance and an uncertain sense of the future, both near and distant. With arguing. Lots of arguing. In all of this, professional and major college sports are lurching forward. The NBA is arriving at its bubble (in Florida) and the NHL soon to its (presumably in two Canadian cities). Major League Baseball has begun a strange version of spring training in home ballparks, readying for a 60-game mini-regular season. Major college football is preparing to play in the fall. The NFL seems determined to start its season on time, but has already cancelled two weeks of preseason games and instituted wide-ranging virus protocols. The Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for Aug. 23, the Kentucky Derby for Labor Day weekend, U.S. Open tennis and golf, both in September. The Masters in November. NASCAR, horse racing, soccer and golf have been back, in some form, for several weeks thus far leaving relatively shallow footprints, at least between the lines.

So our diversions are coming back. Maybe. Big maybe. (Back to that in a minute.) Very little in modern America brings consensus; the return of live sports is predictably no exception. A portion of the citizenry is ecstatic that we might soon have games to cheer, in a time of ongoing health and societal crises (although some members of this cohort would argue that we are not, in fact, experiencing ongoing societal and health crises, which is part of the noise, and the arguing, and the cognitive dissonance). Another portion of the citizenry is absolutely convinced that we are in a time of ongoing – and in some ways unprecedented – societal and health crises and that spending time restarting the sports calendar is tone deaf, irresponsible and possibly unsafe.

The largest portion is surely somewhere in the broad middle, anxious to settle in and watch a game with – or, more realistically, without – friends, but holding the process in an uneasy abeyance, weighing the Can We Do This? against the Should We Do This? As with almost everything that has occurred in America since mid-March, there are no easy answers to the latter question.

Something must be noted here. In late June, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters, “We’re coming back because sports matter in our society. They bring people together when they need it the most.” Hold that quote. Those in the sports ecosystem with the most to gain from bringing back live games are the financial stakeholders in those games: The leagues, the franchises, the television networks (including NBC Sports). This trickles all the way down to media drones like me, whose livelihood is tied to those same games (without sports journalism, I would have been an unsuccessful college basketball coach and then turned to teaching, which is much too difficult; so, thank you, sports). The Division I college athletic departments, whose budgets wobble on top of a tall, unsteady tower built on the premise that a big stadium will be filled to capacity six or seven times a year and that television checks will arrive in the mail.

So there is at least some financial desperation in play here. There’s no shame in this. And it doesn’t mean that the parts of Silver’s comment about sports mattering in our society and bringing people together (maybe not literally, in the present) are not valid. Hell yes, they’re valid. Sports absolutely do those things. Financial need and emotional longing: Both of these things can be present.

But the escapism part is trickier in these current times. The sports world that fans rush back to is not the sports world that was shut down in March, because the world, period, is not the same world. Sports will look different and feel different, and in many ways, challenge our ability to consume them without guilt. Not all of us, because, again, lack of consensus. But many of us.

Begin with aesthetics. I’ve attended one “major” (we can debate ‘’major”) sporting event since March: The June 20 Belmont Stakes, which was run without spectators at cavernous Belmont Park, in the long shadows of New York City. This was not your father’s Belmont, or even last year’s. It was the first of the Triple Crown races, instead of the third, and it was contested at a distance of 1 1/8 miles, instead of the Belmont’s traditional 1 ½ miles. There were good reasons for both of these changes, but they effectively rendered the Belmont… Not The Belmont. Again for good reasons.

Attending and covering the event was a surreal experience. Not because I didn’t feel “safe.” I worked outdoors, I wore my mask, I kept my distance from fellow journalists and interview subjects. I felt plenty safe, or as safe as I can be made to feel at this point in time. And not just because there was no noise, although that was part of it. The surreal event, speaking only for myself here, was a product of the atmosphere. There was an inescapable sense of not quite belonging. On the one hand, it was a pleasure to cover a relatively meaningful sporting event, interview its participants and place its occurrence in some larger context. To do my job.

But the overriding mood was inescapable. Everybody was masked. Everybody was distancing. It was a little somber. It just was. There was uncertainty in the air, a sensation of doing something that just might not be exactly the right thing to do, because nobody really knows what that right thing is, and there’s all that arguing I talked about, and all that cognitive dissonance, and plenty of well-intentioned people trying to behave responsibly (while also attending to the job at hand). Nearly at the end of my work day, as I was finishing my story from that event, the lights went out in the Belmont clubhouse, leaving me to peck away by the glow of my computer screen. This is not unusual for a sports journalist covering an event, but it felt like a strange coda on that day. I was anxious to hustle out of the building.

Later this month the sports calendar will – in theory – be much more aggressively populated, accelerating into the fall. There will be many more games in bubbles and empty stadiums. And also, some events with some spectators, like the Kentucky Derby here in U.S. and the French Open in Paris. In some perfect, unambiguous world, this gradual – and then sudden – return of live games would come as a welcome relief for fans worn down by months of uncertainty, loneliness and anger. But the world is not unambiguous.

In preparation for traveling to their Florida bubble, seven NBA teams shut down facilities or paused training because players or other staff tested positive for COVID-19. Numerous other players opted out of the bubble altogether. Veteran guard J.J. Redick, now with the New Orleans Pelicans, said, before leaving for the bubble, “To say that we have any sort of comfort level, would be a lie. There is no comfort level.” DeMar DeRozan of the San Antonio Spurs said, also before arriving in Florida, “I got through 10 lines of the handbook and just put it down because it became so frustrating and overwhelming at times, because you just never thought you’d be in a situation of something like this. So it’s hard to process at times.”

Last week, Major League Baseball teams began formal “spring” training at home ballparks. As with the NBA, there were delays and glitches in testing and enough positives that several teams shut down workouts. Washington Nationals’ pitcher Sean Doolittle’s comments on the season start were most forceful of all:

“We’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people,” Doolittle told reporters last week. “We’re way worse off as a country then we were in March when we shut this thing down… Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve. …If there aren’t sports, it’s going to be because people are not wearing masks, because the response to this has been so politicized,” he continued. “We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands.”

Most major college football programs brought players back to campus in early June for workouts that have long been described as voluntary but are not really voluntary in any practical sense. Some, like Notre Dame, have experienced no positive COVID-19 tests. Others, like Clemson and LSU, have experienced several dozen. Plans for a regular season, with playoffs and bowls to follow, grind forward unevenly, each day’s messaging a little different from the day before, sometimes cautiously optimistic, sometimes vaguely hopeless. People trying to make something happen, where that something might be at cross-purposes with larger issues like public health and education. Or not. There is so much uncertainty.

On Wednesday, the Ivy League announced that it would have no fall sports season. This could be meaningful, as it was the Ivy League that took the first major step last March, cancelling its conference basketball tournament, and then, all spring sports. Its decisions were soon mirrored by every conference, and college, in America. But causation remains unclear. Rudy Gobert’s positive test was at least equally significant, probably more. Also, there is little resemblance between the economic model for Ivy League football and Power Five conference football, where stakes are higher.

Another domino: Earlier on Wednesday, Stanford announced that 11 non-revenue sports will be discontinued after the 2020-21 academic year. Stanford carries 36 varsity sports (soon to be 25), more than most colleges. It’s unclear if this decision was made on the assumption that there would be no football money for the 2020 season; other Division I colleges have already made similar moves, but Stanford’s action is likely to trigger more.

Then there is the uncomfortable issue of testing. All of the plans resuming or starting sports seasons are dependent on frequent testing of athletes, coaches and staff, as frequently as every other day in some cases. These plans require many tests, and were hatched in the spring, when the testing shortages that initially troubled the U.S. coronavirus response were abating. But now, as we approach midsummer, and sports leagues ramp up their starts, there is again reporting of test shortages in some hard-hit U.S. cities. The question came up previously and now it comes up again: Should sports consume a disproportionate number of tests, if the general public is not able to get tested as needed?

All of this unfolds in a culture riven by partisan and philosophical divisions, and with so much competing noise that it’s generally been left to confused and frustrated citizens to form their own positions on what’s best for themselves and their families. There is noise that schools and colleges and their sports teams could become potent vectors for spreading a virus that seems very present, so please don’t play. There is noise that the virus doesn’t kill young people, so just get over it. (*The virus does kill some young people, and young people can infect older people).

Add this to the mix: Professional sports will next play – whether in late July, late January, or a year from now – in a societal ecosystem that has been changed by the protests of June. Black athletes are newly empowered and supported by a significant and growing portion of the public. Come autumn, if there are games, there will likely be kneeling, and all that comes with it. And there will be a workforce in many sports that is majority Black, playing games consumed by an audience that is majority white, a reality that has long been true but is more present today and more resonant. The names Colin Kaepernick and Bubba Wallace will be invoked frequently, in many ways.

There’s no way to know if all these leagues and all these events can successfully navigate this course. To repeat, I am financially vested in their success (but also personally wary of the attempt, and just generally confused). In the end, I think of the empty stadiums, public health uncertainty and unprecedented racial unrest and wonder: What part of this looks like a “diversion?”

But then there is this: Sports have always been more than a diversion, if we choose to look beyond the entertainment. Which we do not always choose to do. There will be games again, hopefully soon, and more hopefully, safely. They will unfold in a different way than we’ve ever known, and with an audience constantly measuring that uncomfortable difference between Can We? and Should We? Escapism, perhaps, but hardly an escape.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.