Sports have haltingly survived the pandemic, and highlighted it

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Late on the night of Monday, Jan. 11, the college football season ended with Alabama winning another national championship game. It is an accident of chronological symmetry – but a convenient one – that this game took place 10 months to the day after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19, compelling the NBA to pause its 2019-20 season. Within days, that pause had become a shutdown and nearly every sports entity in the United States – and many around the world – had done likewise. The Olympic Games had been postponed. This is a story you already know, and that you have lived.

You lived this part, too: Not long after the widespread shutdowns, sports haltingly resumed. At one end of the spectrum, horse racing barely stopped at all; NASCAR only briefly. Then there was an oddball trickle of filler material: Celebrity golf with football players and PGA Tour pros. Korean baseball. The Last Dance, about games played long ago. Soon came larger discussions about NHL and NBA resumptions and a delayed start to the Major League Baseball season. Off in the distance: The behemoths of college football and the NFL lay in wait. As May turned to June, every passing day seemed to bring the jarring cognitive dissonance created by dueling stories about unchecked illness, death, and mass graves in New York City existing alongside stories outlining how sports could resume. (Not for everybody, because the pandemic was, and remains, a trigger for aggressive disagreement over science and the combustible concept of personal freedom). This dissonance was because we need sports.

The archetypal fan’s position in all of this was that amid a pandemic that had pushed citizens into fearful, masked isolation – again, not everybody; not by a long shot – the reliable entertainment provided by televised sports could offer a soothing balm. Fair enough. The most common word employed was distraction. This was a comfortable linguistic  choice, because it attached to the resumption of sports an innocuous description that conjured up a feet-on-the-footstool, Coors Light-in-the-fist energy that could be cast as something valuable and harmless in the face of a deadly and relentless enemy. It was also a convenient framing for sports leagues (and broadcasters), who needed games not as a distraction, but as a means to recoup potentially devastating financial losses. Businesses across the nation were trying to do the same thing in other ways. (Outdoor dining, curbside groceries and other goods, etc.; which are not analogous to sports, but share an economic underpinning).

Alabama’s decisive victory over Ohio State Monday night in South Florida brought the sports world closer to the completion of something resembling a full calendar year of pandemic competition. Eight NFL teams remain alive in the playoffs and by early February the league will award the Lombardi Trophy to the Kansas City Chiefs I mean to whomever wins the Super Bowl. When that game ends, we will have seen the completion of the NBA, NHL, MLB and NASCAR seasons, college football and the NFL, three of the four golf majors, three of the four tennis majors, and horse racing’s Triple Crown, among many others. March Madness did not happen, but might happen this year. The Olympics are scheduled for this summer.

In broad strokes, it’s unfair to cast this as anything but a remarkable success. (Drilling deeper, this is more debatable; keep reading). In the midst of a public health emergency unlike anything most living Americans had experienced (and with daily social and political unrest), champions were crowned, historical lines of succession have been maintained, Coors Lights have been consumed with feet up on those footstools. (Not by me, personally, but that’s a matter of taste). Distraction was ostensibly provided.  But was it really provided?

This is where it gets more complicated. The working theory was that sports would divert America’s attention from the pandemic, that it would put COVID-19 on our collective back burner while LeBron won his title, while Bryson DeChambeau swallowed Winged Foot and Dustin Johnson won the Masters, while Patrick Mahomes worked his magic. That has both happened, and not happened.

In reality, sports did not hide the pandemic; sports highlighted the pandemic. Telecasts were not an escape from the pandemic, they were a constant reminder of its existence, of its presence in our lives. Like a trip to the grocery store or a hike in the local park meant – and still means, for many people – seeing friends and neighbors in masks and standing an awkward distance from other humans, consuming sports meant accepting images that accentuated the virus’s hold. The NHL and NBA summer bubbles unfolded against a backdrop of a manufactured physical environment and strange, digital sound; MLB to the striking images of giant, empty stadiums. Golf courses that looked eerily like actual golf courses rather than jury-rigged outdoors arenas. This was a distraction that came at a price. (Not necessarily a bad thing).

And even for those fans who were able to compartmentalize the action, there were more abject reminders that sports would not be the toy department. In late August, after the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police officers, NBA teams boycotted a night’s worth of playoff games, and nearly every major professional league followed suit in some form. This, while NBA and WNBA teams had woven support for social justice causes into the fabric of their restarted season.

The summer was also only the beginning. In the autumn, sports moved more fully outside their bubble and into a more complex ethical space, with the launch of the college football and NFL seasons. These are the two most avidly consumed sports in America. College campuses lay quiet while football teams played games in partially empty stadiums; two major conferences (the Pac-12 and Big Ten) shut down and then hurriedly restarted. Dozens of games were cancelled and one participant in the national championship game – Ohio State – played only eight games. The myth of college football as an amateur enterprise was finished off, with ramifications that will shift and linger, changing the face and the economy of that sport. Financial losses were cut and entertainment provided, but there was nothing normal about it. And at the end, there was the uncomfortable image of hundreds of Alabama fans (probably students, but probably not all of them), streaming into the street in Tuscaloosa to celebrate the Tide’s title, an image of potential virus-spreading that seemed to either undercut or ignore the measures that football had implemented for safety.

The NFL has reached its Final Eight without a single game cancelled, but that broad statistic – of which the league is justifiably proud – is at least somewhat misleading. The Denver Broncos played a game with no quarterbacks, the New Orleans Saints with almost no running backs, the Cleveland Browns with almost no wide receivers and, in a playoff game, no head coach. Competitive balance has been shredded, and not just by Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. There is an argument that football in a pandemic is just going to be different, much as life in a pandemic is just going to be different. Your willingness to accept this rationale is directly proportional to your nebulous belief that – back to this phrase – we need sports, because we definitely need life.

Another angle: The return of sports in the summer and into the fall and winter, presented an opportunity for pandemic behavior modeling for a very wide and attentive audience. Cynics called this pandemic theater, but the image of Andy Reid in a shield or Nick Saban in a mask is powerful (and yeah, probably annoying to some). As is the image of college students dancing and hugging in the stands on a Saturday night, which occurred almost every weekend, and in the extreme, with scenes like Notre Dame fans (again, presumably mostly, but not entirely, students) rushing the field to celebrate a November upset of Clemson. Once again, sports did not distract from the pandemic, they highlighted it in high-definition, for better and worse.

This viewpoint isn’t universal. There is a whole ecosystem of content built around underscoring the lesser – although not negligible – effects of COVID-19 on young, healthy athletes as supporting evidence for playing games. This is a microcosm of larger arguments that exist outside the sports world, as to how we should function in the pandemic; it’s likely that history will not judge America kindly in this regard, but that is a job for historians. This also rises a more ethically vexing point – To what extent did the insistence on playing non-bubbled sports inhibit control of the pandemic, writ large? It seems naïve to suggest that COVID-19 wasn’t spread outside football world by those inside it, with unknown consequences. One example: The vaccine distribution facility at Hard Rock Stadium was closed early on Monday, to free up space for the football game. Hence, some non-zero number of senior citizens and frontline caregivers postponed their inoculations.

Calendar pages have flipped, but the sports-and-virus dance continues: The NBA is a few weeks into a bubble-free, 72-game regular season, with predictable results. Games have been postponed, and several have been played by teams dressing the minimum of eight players. Most of the absences have been related to aggressive contact tracing, for which the league should be commended. The NHL opened this week with divisional alignments reconfigured to minimize travel, but it seems likely the league will encounter the same issues that have presented to the NFL and NBA. Bubbles are binary; you are in one or you are not. College basketball has lurched forward, day by day; in mid-January, some teams had played as few as four games. Plans now call for staging the entire NCAA Tournament in and around Indianapolis, which could be a bubble if done aggressively.

It’s an interesting example. Sports have suffered to varying degrees from bubbling and reduced attendance, and few events thrive more on atmosphere than the NCAA Tournament (except at noon on Thursday, when you can sometimes hear sneaker squeaks). Bubbled Madness feels like an oxymoron. Sports at their best are joyful, with moments of joylessness mixed in (injuries, scandal). At times, pandemic sports have veered dangerously close to becoming the inverse: Joyless endeavors with moments of joy mixed in.

Someday sports – and life – will return to a new normal. New, because the effects of 2020-21 will leave scars on the culture. But long after that normal is attained, images will remain behind. NFL Films versions of the 2020 season will capture a (mostly) masked spectacle; the story of Saban’s record seventh national title will have a chapter on his masking, and his infections (one false positive, the other accurate). The record will be permanent, no less than the grainy pictures we’ve all seen from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. What happened, happened.

On Tuesday night on a snowy mountainside in Flachau, Austria, there was a women’s World Cup slalom ski race. It’s a storybook place, a cinematographer’s version of a ski village; I spent time there in 1997, reporting on the great skier Hermann Maier, who was raised in Flachau. (I would love to get back there, but you know….). On Tuesday night, snowflakes fell from the night ski as American Mikaela Shiffrin tore down the piste on her second run to win the race. There were no spectators on the side of the course or at the bottom, when in different times there would have been hundreds or thousands, waving banners and clanging cowbells. There was only the sound of sharpened ski edges screeching through turns.

Shiffrin finished, looked at the scoreboard and then screamed in joy, an unusual reaction from her. But it was her first slalom victory in more than a year, and the first since her father, Jeff, died suddenly last February. So maybe unusual, after all. As Shiffrin moved about the finish corral, smiling, she was approached by third-place finisher Wendy Holdener of Switzerland, who spread her arms to hug. Shiffrin pulled back, yanked a gaiter up over her face and only then hugged Holdener. It did not look like theater, it looked like reality.

An empty hillside, a sudden, dutiful masking and a quiet hug. You could call it a window into pandemic sports, but really it was a mirror.