In May, sportswriter Jane McManus tweeted that “sports are the result of a functioning society,” a comment quickly echoed by others. It is only when you can clothe and feed yourself, when you’re not trying to stave off rampant disease, that you can think about the many uses for round, spherical, and oblong objects.
Watching sports—the closest thing we have to a national language—in isolation doesn’t satisfy the consumer because there is little appeal in talking to yourself.
Our society at present is not functioning. We have an out-of-control pandemic, with a quarter million deaths as of presstime, many millions more who have lived through infection, and eight million people who have moved into poverty in the last year as the economy has been wrecked.
Students are learning at home and illness stalks the healthiest among us. We are sick, divided, and decaying. By McManus’s theorem, there should be no sports. Instead, we should be single-mindedly focusing on controlling COVID-19.
And yet, the games have somehow gone on, albeit in a profoundly distorted form. We have had basketball, football, baseball, tennis, golf, soccer, and NASCAR races take place with no fans, holograms for fans, cardboard cutouts for fans, or a smattering of real people that only draw attention to how few are actually in the seats.
Sports are taking place in a scenescape that looks post-apocalyptic, against the fevered, caffeinated energy coming from the announcers. Crowd noise is piped into the stadiums to give television viewers the impression of normalcy, but it’s usually more disquieting than comforting. It often sounds like a white noise machine that plays at the same pitch no matter what is happening on the field.
According to a recent Marist College study, 46 percent of sports fans are watching fewer games. Ratings are down dramatically. Leagues are enacting layoffs. And the reason is not that sports have gotten “too political”—a common accusation from the right—but because the social fabric of sports has been frayed by the coronavirus.
There are, thank goodness, fewer folks going to people’s houses and meeting in bars to watch games. There’s no tailgating outside of stadiums. There is no connectivity with family. Watching sports—the closest thing we have to a national language—in isolation doesn’t satisfy the consumer because there is little appeal in talking to yourself.
Yet the sports industry cares little about the existential ennui of the fan, because their money comes from broadcasting rights more than human beings. And while fewer games and smaller audiences mean less money, it is still money that is driving the show.
We are left with mannequins in the bleachers and people tuning out precisely because we are not a functioning society. This raises the question: What are sports without fans? If a windmill slam dunk happens in an arena and no one is there to cheer, did it even happen?
Then there is the quality of play itself. How much does it suffer because of the absence of authentic crowd noise? Are the playoffs really the playoffs if every series is played in a hermetically sealed bubble?
I asked this of one former NBA player. He estimated that the roar of the crowd, and the adrenaline it provides, improves a player’s ability by about 20 percent. And it’s not just cheers, it’s boos, too. Players feed off of a dialectical relationship between what they do on the court and the response in the stands.
It’s a tribute to the professionalism of the players that the games haven’t been more of an intramural slack-fest and that they actually resemble professional sports.
Yet resembling professional sports is not the same as actually being professional sports. We are a long way from becoming the kind of functioning society that gets to play without the stress of being in a pandemic.
Until we’re functional, it is understandable that fewer fans are watching. After all, sports are supposed to inspire us to think about what we could accomplish, not sadly remind us of what was, and is no longer.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.