As controversies about the "reopening" of America loom over our lives, nothing seems as intrinsically irrelevant — yet possibly as critically important — as how soon major spectator sports return.
If sports don't trump religion as the opiate of the masses, they have, until recently, been at least the background music of most of our lives. So here's my bet on one possible side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic to put in your scorebook: if the National Football League plays regular season games this fall, President Trump stands a good chance of winning reelection for returning America to business as usual — or, at least, to his twisted version of the same.
That's why he announced at a recent daily coronavirus briefing-cum-rally his eagerness to bring professional sports back quickly. Though it was Major League Baseball that he mentioned — "We have to get our sports back. I'm tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old" — the sport that truly matters to him is football, the only major mass entertainment (other than Trumpism) that endorses tribalism and toxic masculinity so flagrantly and keeps violence in vogue. Football supports Trump in its promotion of racial division, the crushing of dissent, and the spread of misinformation, inequality, and brutality.
Whether or not the president can survive the loss of the 2020 baseball season — already poisoned by last year's Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal — is up for grabs. Certainly, the proposed plan to turn stadiums in the Phoenix, Arizona, area into the sports equivalent of a vast movie set for the games of all 30 major league teams (to be played without fans) seems far-fetched at best.
But football, now the true national pastime, is another matter.
In sports terms, as in so much else in coronaviral America, these are desperately deprived times, even for casual fans. There will be intense pressure – and not only from the president's base — for that sport's return. For many people, mostly men, it's the sustaining soap opera that has always carried them into the next week and the one after that, a porn-ish escape hatch from work and family, a currency of communication with other men, an eternal connection to a non-demanding hive.
Games for lives?
Without professional (or even college) sports right now or realistically in the near future, fans feel even more unmoored in lives that, for all of us, are distinctly adrift. As they become edgier, it's a reasonable bet (or at least my hope) that they will also become more open to questioning Trump's mismanagement — or, to put it more bluntly, sacrifice — of their lives. Recent polls already seem to reflect this, with the latest Gallup Poll showing the steepest approval decline of his presidency.
The president, I suspect, fears just this, though perhaps, in the end, the hole in everyday life where sports once was may only reinforce fans' sense (like the president's) that the games are too important not to bring back, safety be damned. Certainly, Trump and other Republican politicians have already been willing enough to forfeit lives to boost their reelection chances.
The values and sensibilities of football are, of course, Trumpist in nature. That's why former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's demonstration against racism — performed in a kind of public isolation — elicited such a harsh reaction from the president in the now-distant pre-pandemic era. That's why the sport's billionaire owners, predominantly Trump donors, shunned Kaepernick (although some of their teams could have used his skills). They didn't dare to, or care to, give him another platform, not in an era when "president" and "racism" were becoming synonymous.
Even more tellingly, in an understandable but still disappointing me-first display, few of Kaepernick's fellow players, most of whom are also African-American, supported him publicly. After years of being celebrated as America's "warriors" and "role models," they came up desperately short when it counted. Compare them to healthcare workers and other front-line heroes of this pandemic and you'll realize just how far short they fell of even the most modest form of everyday bravery.
Not that, when it comes to pro sports, football was such an outlier. As activism goes, baseball, a sport that once produced transcendent progressive heroes like Jackie Robinson, Jim Bouton, and Curt Flood, has been eerily quiet in recent years. It's a sport that the president has paid relatively little attention to — except for suggesting recently that Pete Rose, banned from baseball for life for betting on the Cincinnati Reds while he was that team's manager, should be allowed into its Hall of Fame.
How Trumpian was that? Such betting is, of course, strictly forbidden for active players and managers who are obviously privy to inside information. But, hey, does disregarding inconvenient rules to profit from a privileged position ring any bells these days in Washington?
Trump has, in fact, been uncharacteristically silent on the recent revelation that during the 2017 season, the World Series winners, the Houston Astros, concealed a video camera in center field to steal the pitching signs of opposing teams. That's also illegal. Major League baseball punished the team by suspending its manager and general manager for a year, imposing a $5 million fine on its owners, and taking away its first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021.
For some fans and commentators, the Astros' punishment was too severe or too mild. Opposing players, feeling victimized by the scheme, thought specific Astros should have been penalized, too. Yet such cheating is hardly new. In 1951, the "shot heard round the world," a famed home-run that won the National League pennant for the New York Giants and sent them to the World Series, was linked to the stealing of signs from the Brooklyn Dodgers through a hand-held telescope. Only the technology has improved.
A changing national pastime
Once baseball's opening day passed without a pitch this April, proof that the plague was winning, the Phoenix Plan was floated. It would require all major league players and employees to be sequestered in that area and continually tested at a moment when tests might still not be universally available. But, hey, haven't VIP Jocks always gone to the head of the line? (Actually, a massive study of 10,000 Major League Baseball employees, from players to popcorn vendors, being conducted by Stanford University and the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory to find out how many contracted and may have recovered from the virus has already gotten access to such testing kits at a time when even some front-line workers can't get them!)
For those who think this country needs baseball now to raise its depressed spirits, you might consider a cautionary historical precedent, the Summer of Swat of 1998. As the country reeled from the revelation of President Bill Clinton's sexual liaison with a White House intern and with his impeachment just around the corner, a feel-good legend was born. A white man and a brown man rose in friendly rivalry to break the 37-year-old record of 61 home runs by Roger Maris, who, in turn, had bested Babe Ruth's famed 60 in 1927.
The good-natured competition between Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals (who won with 70 homers) and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs (66) was, at the time, celebrated as a balm that should soothe the country. And perhaps for many fans it did indeed serve as a comforting distraction in a difficult political moment.
But that summer's golden glow soon faded as both players were reported to have taken steroids to muscle up. McGwire would admit it years later; Sosa would not. (A dark-skinned Dominican, he further complicated his legend by bleaching his skin to whiten himself, as if in anticipation of the Trumpian racial preferences to come.) Their contemporary, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, would eventually become the single-season home run leader with 73, but has never shaken rumors that he, too, used steroids.
Nor did baseball ever fully recover its sense of primacy as the national pastime or its sense of righteousness as one of America's first major institutions to integrate. In fact, the sport is still overwhelmingly white and skewed toward an older audience, as well as slow and outdated in an era of tweeting speed.
Which is why, whether or not baseball opens this season in a vast sports self-isolation experiment, the key to President Trump's future lies in his perverse relationship with the National Football League. That goes back more than 30 years to the moment he tried unsuccessfully (as with so many other business ventures) to elbow his way into the sport. Give him credit, though: ever attuned to the public mood, he did sense the rise of a new national pastime.
Bet on this
One reason for the NFL's growing popularity is the way it uses college football as its minor leagues and early showcase for pro players (though possibly not this fall). For a passionate pro football fan, it's a pleasure to see the stars of tomorrow in the making. Of course, the famously corrupted higher education sports market is a happy NFL partner and crime may pay after all, as it often does in the Trump league. In a recent commentary in the "Chronicle of Higher Education," Nathan Kalman-Lamb of Duke opines that high-revenue men's football and basketball "will become more valuable than ever as an enticement to lure steep tuition from students."
And here's an innovation that the president would glory in, one that would make post-pandemic football an even greater success: the addition of real-time nationwide legal gambling on games. Just imagine the sort of Trump-donor dollars that would be stacked up to support such a future industry. After all, estimations are that illegal gambling on pro and college football is already a $93 billion business. Legal or not, it's an integral part of the fan experience (though in the post-pandemic world there will be a lot less money in so many pockets to gamble with).
The dream of easily accessible, high-tech legal gambling has been lurking on the sidelines for years. All that's necessary to make it come true is for Congress to reverse the 1992 Professional & Amateur Sports Protection Act, the federal law that bans it in most states. And the pandemic moment may prove perfect for just that, for "reopening" football in a new and even more Trumpian way, allowing fans to sit at home and bet what money they have left on games in progress: Will that field goal attempt split the uprights? Will Tom Brady in his new Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform make that crucial third-down conversion?
However, to reopen pro football, as the president would wish, to make life seem "normal" again, stadiums might have to remain empty (or partially empty). Imagine, for instance, if San Francisco had actually beaten Kansas City (which it didn't) in the Super Bowl on the first Sunday in February and the expected championship parade had followed a few days later, drawing a million people to that city's streets. It might have proved an early version of Mardi Gras (a 2020 coronaviral disaster of a get-together).
Of course, social distancing will be inconceivable for football players and the results all too predictable in a world in which Covid-19 is likely to hang around for a long, long time. From the huddle to tackling, the game is, in every way, a potential disease transmitter. The only example of social distancing (besides Kaepernick kneeling alone) I can even remember might have been the 1958 West Point football team, which fielded a "lonesome end," Bill Carpenter. On every play, he set himself up near the far sideline in an innovative formation. He never even joined the huddle and that team went undefeated.
If it proves impossible to stage football games, given social-distancing rules, the inevitable sport of the future is already waiting in the wings. Just under the radar of most of the middle-aged and elderly, especially those without access to children, is a fiercely contested, already commodified, fan-friendly industry with championships, heroes, endorsement contracts, and a ready market for expensive gear. I'm thinking, as you may have guessed, of competitive online video games, or esports. (Think of it as the revenge of the nerds.) No matter what Donald Trump does, sooner rather than later they're likely to replace the old up-close-and-contagious live games.
It's not hard to imagine a future in which individual competitors, regional and national teams, leagues, or even some version of the Olympics, would be watched by millions on streaming platforms on home screens and, once social distancing becomes a historical footnote, on the screens of sports bars as well, if not theaters and arenas. While combat games like "Fortnite" and "Call of Duty," along with sports knock-offs like Madden and NBA Live, currently dominate esports, the future will undoubtedly include brainier fare that will turn art, architecture, banking, diplomacy, music, and maybe even poetry into online competitions even Nike and Google could sponsor.
Esports already supports ESPN-style commentary. There might even be room someday for a new reality show about them hosted by a motor-mouthed, pumpkin-headed former one-term president.
Who needs football after all? It would, in fact, be the definition of madness to launch a football season in a coronaviral world. But that doesn't mean Donald Trump won't push for just that. The advisory board he appointed for the reopening of sports includes, as my colleague Dave Zirin points out, "a group of brigands defined by their lack of care in normal times for the safety and well-being of their employees."
It's Trump's dream team because, to win in November, he needs an America in which the National Football League is back in business big time. For him it's open arms for the NFL, which could mean open season on the rest of us.
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Copyright 2020 Robert Lipsyte