Living without sports will teach us something about how much we really need them
By THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post | Published: March 30, 2020
Eight to 10 more weeks sounds bad, but not too long to endure — once in a lifetime, I can probably tough it out. The idea of four or five months makes me a little bit crazy. But then what do I know about this Sports Withdrawal Syndrome?
Just more than two weeks ago, I was at a Yankees-Nats spring training game in front of a packed house. The only other time I've gone 17 days without watching or attending a sporting event was my honeymoon. Otherwise, I may never have gone cold turkey without live sports since I got hooked as a kid.
The rest of this year probably will be a laboratory experiment that none of us ever thought we would see: months on end with no live sports at all. In this controlled study, I'm just going to be another mouse in our huge sports-free cage, observing myself as we all watch one another. How will this turn out? What will we learn about ourselves, the place of sports in our lives and even whether we want more, less or the same that we consumed pre-covid-19?
A planet-wide pandemic is going to leave a mark on every part of society. In six months, a year, whatever it is, we'll recognize where we are. But everything will be a little different. Some things much different. Will sports be one of them?
These days, we talk about a virus going exponential, doubling on itself at regular intervals, until finally, through medication, isolation, vaccination or just exhaustion as more of the herd gets immune, the disease runs its course.
But pleasant things can go exponential, too — such as sports entertainment, constantly growing for at least a century, booming along with TV in the past 70 years. Does the human herd, at some point, become inoculated to games — with everyone as exposed to the happy contagion as possible — until some exhaustion ensues? Does that curve finally flatten, too?
What could catalyze such a subtle shift in habits? Perhaps a real pandemic.
Maybe I'm a perfect guinea pig. I fell in love with sports when there were only four TV channels in D.C. We saw Senators games but only one national Major League Baseball "Game of the Week" on Saturday. We also saw our hometown NFL team on Sunday. The first Masters broadcast in 1956 was on TV for 2½ hours spread over three days. March Madness? No way. Just a delayed broadcast of the title game. Some cities didn't even show it; others had it on past-midnight tape delay.
Now, my cable system gets 46 channels devoted exclusively to sports. Or is it 70? Depends on what you count or pay for. But I can watch cricket highlights, rodeo, esports, horse racing, skiing, Olympic trials, auto racing, bowling, soccer in multiple languages, track and field, boxing, wrestling, tennis, the Big Ten, the ACC, the SEC and five ESPN channels (none worth much), plus every "major" sport on its own 24/7 channel.
The data-dense websites that morph around each sport are a gold mine, or a bottomless pit. There's no limit to what you can learn, whether it's truly worth analyzing or not. The wormholes of MLB, NFL, NBA and even golf stats fascinate me. If Corsi and Fenwick get me, call the guys with the straitjackets.
We're so saturated with sports, and lusting for more, that if my old mutt Mac could learn to juggle two dog biscuits, he would have his own channel.
Now, suddenly, real-time live action, fresh raw sports meat, that's all shut down. But you can watch the Greatest Games or Biggest Wins in different sports — 'round the clock — for your sustenance. Or, in the case of addictions, "maintenance."
I don't judge your jones. I've got my own and don't plan to kick them ever. They're central for me. I've bored my family with this: Never abandon anything or anyone you loved when young, because, as you age, you won't add enough new passions and friends to compensate for everything you've casually thrown away.
That applies to sports. But am I going to keep all these attachments? In the same quantity? I've been adding game hours every year. Time to rebalance?
So far, the answer appears to be "not just yet."
I've watched a synopsis of the 1978 MLB season and every pitch of the Bucky Dent Game; some players, such as Dent, choked up five inches on the bat, and I never noticed. I've watched Stephen Strasburg's debut, Stephen Strasburg's five-RBI dance-in-the-dugout game and all five of Stephen Strasburg's October wins.
I've watched the final round of a generic 2019 PGA Tour event just to see a screen full of green grass. I've watched "SportsCenter" some, which means I've watched endless out-of-game-context dunks and treys from ESPN's NBA archive, all of them 98 percent like all other dunks and treys. In other words, "SportsCenter" hasn't changed at all, but now it's just tape from the vault.
But how long can this last? To maintain life, humans require only food, clothing and shelter, not 17 sports events to watch at 2 p.m. on a Thursday. In 1846, Henry David Thoreau went into the woods alone outside Concord, Massachusetts, with a few tools. He built his house, caught or grew his food — not Whole Foods. He came out two years and two months later, none the worse and possibly much the better, with the material for "Walden." His ringtone was a frog — a real one.
"At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again," he wrote.
There isn't a particle of Thoreau in me. I couldn't build a Lego box. But over the next 10 weeks or more, with our favorite sports reruns worn to a nub, we're going to have to reacquaint ourselves with at least a few of the things that people did in the 200,000 human years before Stephen A. Smith and Mel Kiper Jr.
When sports opens its doors again, be sure to wear armor, because I suspect we'll be storming the entrances to cheer and rejoice. Or will we?
Every major product spends years, then decades building its brand recognition and increasing what marketers call "mind share." The last thing any company wants is for you to try some other brand. You might like it better.
Right now, the price for a family of four to go to an NFL, NBA and NHL game — with average tickets, parking, hot dogs, beer/sodas and souvenirs — is about $1,000, $490 and $425, respectively. Even MLB ($235) looks good only comparatively. What if we realized how ridiculously expensive this actually is?
Or, maybe, that is exactly backward. Perhaps pent-up demand and revived spirits will help MLB set attendance records, as it did in 1919 after the influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million worldwide.
Maybe the roar of a crowd will never sound so symphonic, a beer line never feel so tolerable and the Yankees fan behind you never seem so worthy of sympathy for his team's long wait (relative to the Nats') since its last title.
Week by week, or month by month, we'll watch ourselves and one another. How much sports investment will be the right amount for each of us? Terrible times, such as World War I, can evoke a riotous Jazz Age. But what about a virus that comes fast and hits hard but also leaves? Perhaps that strikes us like a quick, hard smack, makes us soberer and more respectful of facts? And less playful, too?
We just don't know. But we won't be quite the same in our relationship to games, a bond that was so intense and consuming just two weeks ago. Not much about a pandemic is instructive. But how we use our time in its wake, where we invest our passion — even if we just change the tilt of our heads by a few degrees in the way we see the world — will be an education to us. Each in our own way.