You're grieving for sports

May 29, 2020

When it comes to sports, I gather a lot of us feel displaced and anxious right now. Major sports teams provide entertainment and cultural identity to millions of Americans that’s moored to the seasons, tracking the fundamental rhythms of life, and the global pandemic has disrupted that expected progression.

It’s a huge loss and something we ought to name because collective grief is influencing when and how big time sports return.

Ownership, obviously, wants to start play at the earliest possible moment that they can tolerate the risk of a mini-outbreak or a death related to the game activities. Not every franchise owner is Tilman Fertitta, who sought a $250 million loan with absolutely wild terms at the start of April, but at the least all of them are seeing money going out and very little money coming in. Getting games back on TV and, maybe, fans in the seats starts bringing money back.

Athletes have disparate concerns. Surely, some are hurting financially at the moment and want to get back to playing so they can start generating income again, too. There are players like Blake Snell, who are wary of management seeking to leverage the pandemic to pay players less, and are willing to sit out to prevent that. There are players like Damian Lillard, who suggested that playing out games that have no impact on his team’s playoff chances isn’t good enough to get him back on the floor. And surely there are players who don’t want to play at all this season in order to give the pandemic time to recede.

Fans are mostly divorced from the practical and financial concerns of sports franchises. Major league sports franchises have outsized interest compared to their actual economic impact, which is extremely tiny. Therefore, how much fans support a sport’s resumption is mostly a function of how strongly we want the games to go on for symbolic reasons. But also, we’re the primary reason games go on in the first place. If we clamor for the games, then we’re saying we’ll spend money on them again. If we made it clear we wouldn’t support resumption of games this year, it might not dissuade teams from playing (broadcast contracts being what they are), but it would make a difference.

The thing is, for most of us, everything we think right now is colored by grief. I’m reading And the Band Played On, the late Randy Shilts’s seminal book about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and, understanding that there are many big differences between that plague and this crisis, one of the issues he described with a clear parallel to how we’re dealing with Covid-19 is that we’re collectively going through something like the classic Kubler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

I read Will Leitch’s newsletter posts over the past few months and see the arc. I see it in Marc Stein’s reporting. If you begin from a place of empathy and squint a little, you can see the arc in that tiny armed group that gathered at the Michigan State Capitol earlier this month. Is the NFL optimistic, or in denial?

It’s hard to grasp the sheer scale of what Covid-19 has wrought in the absence of competent leadership from a politician and movement that refuses to accept there are collective solutions for anything (beyond tax cuts). BuzzFeed’s graphic illustrating how many official deaths have been recorded due to the virus compared to other American disasters hit me pretty hard, but I suspect a good number of people are still in denial about how much death and suffering their countrymen have experienced.

We can try to find common ground in how much we miss sports and try to dispassionately assess when and how big time sports leagues can start entertaining us again, but we could also dramatically reduce the amount of conflict, stress, and confusion in all this by embracing our collective grief for the life we thought we’d have.

(Photo: "Marquese Chriss" by Erik Drost. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)