I remember talking my way through a police barricade at the 59th Street Bridge around noon on September 11. Armed with a New York Post building ID card and sense of urgency, I convinced the cop tasked with keeping everyone off the Manhattan-bound side of the expanse that I was an essential member of the media who needed to get across that bridge immediately.
Halfway across the East River, I looked south and saw the bottom of the island being devoured by death. As swarms of people fled in the opposite direction of me from the horror and uncertainty of that unimaginable morning, I knew I was no hero rushing toward danger.
I was just a newspaper sports desk editor called in on his day off to put out the most meaningless sports section ever published in the history of the world.
My thoughts have gone back to that day a lot this past week. I’ve heard people compare the coronavirus pandemic to 9/11. Not because I still can’t believe the Post decided to continue publishing a sports section as every league suspended play and human remains burned for weeks in the rubble just four miles south of our office. No, it was the phenomenon of everyone walking around, nodding their heads in agreement on how this tragedy would really “put sports in perspective.”
It didn’t, of course, because it never does.
Within 10 days – 10 days! – they were playing baseball again and Mike Piazza was hitting a home run in the eighth inning of a regular-season game. And we rose as a nation and cheered once again: America. Fuck yeah.
“And on the tenth day, The Home Run healed us.”
It returned us to “normalcy.”
And on the eleventh day we sang “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Except there was nothing normal about this.
As Steve Karsay, who gave up the home run to Piazza, said years later: “Having the crowd be into a baseball game at that time seemed kind of strange to me.”
And he’s right. It was strange. And it still is.
Don’t get me wrong, I have experienced the love of sports and the euphoria it can provide. Even today—when there are no teams I root for—there is no greater pleasure than watching the Yankees be humiliated. By whoever. It’s a morbid bliss, really.
But this notion of “sports as catharsis” has always seemed, at its best, like a trivialization of grief. At its worst, it’s an act of societal selfishness that gives permission to the unaffected majority to pretend everyone’s life is normal again—simply because theirs is.
As was the case the night of Piazza’s home run. The only people who were “healed” by that ball being hit really far were those who had the luxury to be. The luxury of tragedy’s bystander, whose well-being and bank account remained intact as Piazza’s swing ameliorated their grief, providing them the strength to pick up the pieces of their shattered convenience and return to their soothing consumption. But what of the families and friends of the 3,000 people murdered ten days earlier? Or those who lost jobs or homes when the towers fell, uncertain of where they’d live or get their next meal? I can’t say for certain, but I’m willing to bet they weren’t as restored. Their lives weren’t normal again. And they might never be.
Sports, meet perspective.
Which brings us to our current catastrophe.
Worst-case estimates put the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. at 1.7 million. The Trump administration has warned that the unemployment rate could hit 20 percent as a result of the pandemic. It was 25 percent during the Great Depression.
Let that sink in.
So whenever the sports world does finally resume, it will do so against a backdrop of human and economic havoc this country has rarely seen. Which means there will be fewer bystanders to this tragedy – and, in turn, fewer folks able to afford the luxury of sports.
For decades—and with relative impunity—owners have levied an ungodly tithe upon fandom. But no matter how many scandals, work stoppages or publicly funded boondoggles, fans have always come back in droves to be gouged again. Is this the moment that racket stops? I mean, how the hell do people suffering from Depression-era unemployment afford a nearly $400 trip to the ballpark?
Regardless, once the games start being played again, the talk will turn immediately (it’s already begun on a very small level) to how all the suffering caused by coronavirus and the loss of life, jobs and businesses—calls for the resumption of sports to save us. And everyone will solemnly nod their heads and thank god that the game has returned a sense of normalcy to the world.
Look closely at who’s talking. And who’s nodding. And think about why.
Some will be using it as a harmless coping mechanism. Others will be trying to lure you back into their arenas in order to coax more money out of your pocket. The worst will be trying to get you to forget that there are those who have gotten fucked during this pandemic – by a government that reacted too slowly to the crisis, by a society that rewards the rich and connected or just by the universe, in general.
But don’t forget.
Remember that none of this shit matters. They are just games. Games played by freakishly gifted humans who are employed by freakishly wealthy humans who, more often than not, don’t really care about the rest of us.