Among all the wild proposals/blueprints/sketches from various leagues on how to finish their season (NBA and NHL) or just complete it (MLB), there’s a semi-constant thread at the end of all of them.
So did Rob Manfred.
It’s that sports can aid in the “recovery” of the country, or world.
This is a particular symptom of baseball, and baseball writers, as no one loves to tout the sport’s intertwining with American history, and its representation of some form of Americana, more than baseball itself. Of course, they tend to leave out that it’s just as much intertwined with the ugly parts of American history and culture as it is the good things, if not more so. Racism and income equality/failures of capitalism leap immediately to mind.
The idea of “recovery” at all is a bit strange when it comes to a pandemic, and even more so when considering how sports play into that at all. The “recovery” that writers love to wax poetic about is much more micro and personal than they’ll have you believe.
This isn’t a “sports don’t matter” column, because I don’t believe that. Fuck, I wrote a book about how they do matter. But they don’t “matter” in the ways the sports themselves and the writers who cover them want you to believe, quite possibly as cover for just recouping as much money as they can. And they don’t matter in the ways our officials and leaders would want you to believe either, as they use it as cover for lots of things.
Baseball and 9/11 gets thrown out first and frequently when discussing this. And you have to ask, as my colleague Jim Rich did right here, just what exactly was recovered? Sure, the Yankees probably put a couple smiles on faces that needed them, but the towers were still down, the thousands still dead, the millions still shaken. And the world was still changed. And what if Seattle had made the World Series instead? Would anyone talk about this supposed phenomenon? It has some serendipity to it.
That’s not to say the momentary distraction didn’t have its benefits. Sports right now, if they were possible (which they aren’t), would give us something to watch, something to talk about, something to bond over. And that would make the isolation of sheltering at home a little more manageable.
That’s not nothing.
But it feels like where that ends.
Pundits and writers have, for the most part, stopped pointing to George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium as proof of “healing” or “recovery.” But they didn’t then. It was viewed as heroic. Inspirational. Which gave Bush even more capital to start a horribly mismanaged war that’s still going nearly 20 years later and another completely unnecessary one that only resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. And he could do it because so few had the courage to stand up to his status, only enhanced by that moment in The Bronx. Maybe it played only a small role in that, but it played one.
And what did we recover from all that? Three years later that same man won reelection on the back of those destructive wars, keeping LGBTQ people from marrying the people they love, and policies that kept minorities and poor people alike in the mud. Sports, like pretty much everything else, failed to keep us from separating ourselves again.
Don’t fool yourself, that’s what our dummard-Cheeto in charge is looking for. Sports returning can provide the facade of “normalcy,” which he and other leaders can use as a sign of strength or triumph. They can take the glow of it, falsely hold it up as proof that we’re on the other side and they’re the ones who brought us to it. That’s their main goal. Not actual recovery or normalcy.
Again, that’s not to say sports don’t have a place or role. They most certainly do. If you’re here, that almost certainly means sports play some part in the most important memories of your life. They do for so many of us. The night the Cubs won the World Series is certainly one of the best nights of my life, maybe top. Spent around people I love and seeing something that just hadn’t happened before that I thought about pretty much every day since I was four.
But the next day, I still didn’t have a job. The people and things that were absent in my life that made that portion of my life hard were still absent. Fundamentally, there wasn’t really a change. But what it did do is give me a positive thing to draw on, to make those obstacles and problems seem more manageable, even conquerable, as well as a connection to those who were gone in a way. Which only fed into the idea that going on without them or those things was possible, even likely. That’s hardly a nothing. And that’s what sports can do, but it’s just about the limit of what they can do. We could all use any positive feeling, no matter the scale, right now. We‘ll need it whenever this is over, but we’ll need so much more.
One has to ask whether a state of “normalcy” is even something that’s possible after all of this, or even something we should want. The coronavirus has torn away any covering of the massive problems in health care, income inequality, government policy and management, corruption and so many others that we have. It would be healthier for everyone in the long run to keep those issues at the forefront long after the epidemic is quelled. The problems that allowed this to become what it has will not change in a return to normalcy.
That’s what those in power want. They want any signal that life is ok, and life is ok because it’s going back to the way things were. And if things are ok that way, then people stop looking for the changes and the incredible work that will take. They see sports as Soma. That’s the trap too many writers fall into, buying into that. That’s not what we need now.
Sports can do that, or help at least. Colin Kaepernick. Megan Rapinoe. Didier Drogba stopped a civil war in his country. And these are just a smattering of names that have done so. But too often sports are used as a tool to get things back to where they were, as problematic as they were, and are. That’s why some say sports don’t matter, and in that sense they have a point. The Vegas Knights skating to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season after the Vegas slaughter, which didn’t bring about new gun control measures. The Yankees going to the World Series in 2001 didn’t stop flawed and dangerous foreign policy and hatred and racism. This list could go on forever.
When using words like “recovery” and “healing,” sports do play a role. But it’s a defined one, a small one on the spectrum. It’s yet another chance to realize that.