In March, the pandemic hit. In May, George Floyd was killed and mass protests and unrest washed over America and beyond. In August, Jacob Blake was rendered paralyzed, and more disobedience and violence has come as a result.
I am a massive sports fan. I have watched, played, followed and analyzed sports religiously since I was old enough to do so. My entire year is centered around the sports calendar. College football and EPL start in the fall, absorbing my weekends with fantasy football in the background. Hockey starts in October, then college basketball in November, and after football ends, those get my full attention, with soccer continuing to have a presence. March Madness is my annual holiday, and the NHL Playoffs provide a good buffer into the summer after college hoops’ conclusion, with the EPL coming to a close in May. In the summer, there’s WNBA and MLS to keep me going through the lighter months. Years with major international soccer tournaments make the summers that much better. Then rinse and repeat with the opening of college football.
This has more or less been my routine for my whole life. Even in the year I lived on the other side of the planet, I found ways to watch my sports, either in the middle of the night or on recordings the following day. Virtually nothing stopped me from immersing in my world of sports until this year.
First, the coronavirus forced it upon me. College basketball conference tournaments were killed before most finished, and March Mandess was cancelled. I vividly remember sitting on the couch in my office, staring at the blank television in front of me, feeling a mix of confusion, sadness and fear. Would the NHL Playoffs be gone, too? What am I going to do with my time? How will I handle losing something that has helped stabilize my mental health for my whole life?
As we progressed through a sports-less world, I became more accustomed to living without it. But it wasn’t good. Sports have been my top energy outlet forever. They were my only friend when I didn’t have any for years. Sports were always there for me when I was down and needed someone or something. And now they weren’t, and I struggled.
But the pause on sports forced me to acknowledge the state of everything around me even more than before. I’ve always been very observant, and if you talk to people who have been close to me, they’ll tell you that I’ve been wholly aware of this country’s deficiencies for a long time. This was different, though. Now, a pandemic was sweeping the nation, killing and infecting thousands of innocent people while our country, and there was nowhere for me or the millions of other sports lovers to hide and pretend things were okay.
Then, Floyd was killed, and everything turned up to 11. Protests, riots and an upswell of tangible anger swept through the streets of all 50 states. Still, sports remained unplayed, and me and every other sports fan had no distraction away from reality.
As these events unfolded and sports – other than EPL – stayed sidelined, I was glad for it. Clearly, America has ceased to be a fully functional society, and I view sports and other similar circuses as rewards for a functioning society. There were a number of much more important things happening, and those deserved more attention than dunks and goals.
Sports eventually did return, all in their weird pandemic-forced formats and schedules. Given my sports history, you’d think I was counting down the days until a ball was dribbled or a puck was shot. But I wasn’t. Other than fulfilling my responsibility as a sports reporter and an occasional glance, I wasn’t very keyed in. Sports felt like nonsensical fluff in the face of much more crucial issues, which also provided me with further perspective on what is truly important in life, and that answer is not athletics.
With sports restarting, I have paid some attention. I’ve caught WNBA games. I watched the Columbus Blue Jackets, my local NHL team, in their quest through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and I’ve otherwise tuned in for some NHL Playoffs. But nothing like I would have in April in a normal world, and not even close to with the same passion I’ve had for decades.
Now, Jacob Blake has been shot in the back several times by police, and it’s all on video. A 17-year-old from another state came to Wisconsin with a gun he couldn’t legally have and killed multiple people protesting more police misconduct, and the same police department did not arrest him at the scene. A new fire was ignited, and now sports leagues have responded with postponements.
This is what I’ve been waiting for.
My passion for sports has diminished a great deal since March, and the events in May and June didn’t help. Athletics felt like a distraction away from reality: a reality that should not be ignored. And without sports, they could not be ignored. When I watched sports after the hiatus, I often found myself thinking about the millions of other people watching who are using sports as a cynical escape from the dark reality millions of Americans face every day, intentionally ignoring the plight that many athletes and fans have endured.
America is the land of circuses, and sports is one of the biggest attractions for its attendees. And the clowns are done wearing makeup.
Finally, there seems to be a unified response among major athletes in this country. Just think of how far we’ve come from just three years ago when Colin Kaepernick was one of the most divisive figures in America for kneeling during the National Anthem, a totally peaceful act that did not retract from the action on the field. Now in 2020, you not only have countless athletes taking knees, but entire leagues are saying that enough is enough, and they will not play to provide the willfully ignorant a distraction from the uncomfortable reality that is racism, inequality and general lack of empathy in this country.
Not since February have I felt this passionate about sports. With these gestures from athletes across the sports world, it feels like my concerns about sports dating back to March have been confirmed by the source itself, and I can revel in the players making everyone have to wake up and smell the roses.
That’s not to say I think this will change many minds. I’ve seen the reactions from many sports fans, online and in-person, and from our politicians. I know that a good chunk of the population does not and will not ever support something like this. Rather than use this as an opportunity to reflect, it will embolden them further. They won’t pause for a single second to consider the irony of anger over not having sports for a few days while ignoring or condoning police violence against Americans.
But what about that 8-year-old kid who hasn’t had racism seeping into him fully yet? What will he think? Surely, his parents’ explanation for why he can’t watch basketball tonight will have an impact, but maybe he will also take into account what LeBron James and his other favorite players have to say. Maybe the gravity of the moment will not be lost on him. Maybe this is seismic event will be what interests him into learning the true history of this country and understanding the policies of the past and present that have created the climate we live in now.
If that happens for just one kid, this country will be a better place in 20 years than it would have otherwise been, and losing sports for a few days was worth it.
Racism isn’t comfortable. It’s not polite. That conversation requires reflection of self, reflection of history and reflection of society. It requires honesty and a willingness to admit fault. It requires empathy and care for people outside of your sphere, people who you have never and will never meet and who look nothing like you.
But it is wholly necessary for us to ever heal the wounds so deep in America, and it is unequivocally more necessary to our society than sports.
Thank you, professional athlete. By not playing sports, you have given me back my passion for sports.