As the most devastating virus to hit this country in 100 years continues to infect and kill people in great numbers, the president of the United States personally mocks measures designed to limit the damage. He continues to celebrate his response to the plague as magnificently successful, the facts notwithstanding.
Would a diversion from the daily weight of the grim fact of the virus and the discouraging, shameful failure of the Trump administration to respond to the emergency be welcome?
But sports? I don’t think so.
Hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets day after day and night after night have developed a more responsible and more powerful way to put the virus out of mind, at least temporarily. These people, many of them masked, are protesting the specific violence committed against African Americans by the police and the more general violence visited upon people of color by political and social systems that have never provided them justice.
In the context of this news, it doesn’t seem significant to me that Major League Baseball’s owners and players are about to begin a truncated season.
Don’t get me wrong. Baseball’s great. The men who play it at the highest level are extraordinary athletes, and I’ve enjoyed the games they play since I was a kid. Baseball has always provided the constant background hum of my summer, and I understand that lots of people feel deprived without it.
But baseball games won’t be much of a diversion from the virus that continues to sicken and kill thousands of people across the land. And even in the cities where teams are winning, will playoff prospects divert people from the great and courageous struggle for equal rights and equal justice now underway? I certainly hope not.
The 2020 season’s intriguing footnote is that lots of the players whom fans most enjoy watching have wisely opted out, and this time around, the box scores should also include numbers of absences due to COVID-19 and players in quarantine as well as hits, runs and errors.
Of course, for decades this nation’s primary sport for diversion from everything else has been football, and there was considerable dismay in various quarters when Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed doubt about whether the National Football League Corporation would be able to safely resume commercial operations in the fall.
I worked in sports for several decades. I understand the significance of the NFL to the psyche of the nation. Pro football is America’s game. Its action, its violence and the potential for life-altering injury — either short-term, long-term or both — provide fans with excitement and thrills. People bet billions of dollars on the games. They buy team jerseys and caps in great numbers. They wear tattoos of their favorite teams.
But when a doctor who knows more than anyone else about how dangerous a virus can be and how easily it can spread says, regarding football, “Yeah, well, maybe not,” shouldn’t we listen to him? When he says it might not be a good idea for pro football to commence in an autumn likely to bring a new surge in the virus, no matter how significant the crush and rumble of the game may be to the sense of identity of millions of citizens, should our response be to ridicule the doctor?
I don’t think so. I think our response should be, “Hey, this is a guy who knows what he’s talking about. We should listen to him. Maybe by doing so, we’ll help save some lives. Maybe a lot of lives. Could be doing that will be worth the sacrifice of an autumn’s worth of colorful rumbles.”
I say all this as somebody who used to be in the business of talking and writing about sports. Sometimes I celebrated them for their stories, and for the joy we could find in them, and for the lessons we could learn from the people who played and coached and watched the games.
But times change, and at least temporarily, our times have changed dramatically in terms of two historic developments. One of them, the virus and the subsequent, nearly singular failure of this country’s president to respond responsibly to it, is tragic. The other, the outpouring of outrage and subsequent determination to establish a safer, more just environment for people previously deprived of their rights in the most violent imaginable ways, is potentially joyous and revolutionary.
In the context of these times, allowing ourselves to be diverted by games seems irrelevant, even irresponsible.