And so the experiment begins. If only one of the strangest, potentially scariest and certainly unprecedented stretches of our connected age were actually an experiment.
As unreal as it seems, it’s all too real, even if most of us are (so far; fingers crossed) free from any of the real effects of the COVID-19 virus, other than anxiety about the great toilet paper shortage.
But it’s getting real fast. This weekend will be the first with no games on and it won’t be the last – it seems for quite some time.
You can feel the panic rising.
In an increasingly secular society where sports has become the church of our culture, we’re used to the odd few days or so when the leagues we love slow down or pause ever so briefly. We manage.
Somehow, we navigate the yawning few days around the MLB all-star break, modern sports’ ultimate dead zone. We get through the off week leading up to the Super Bowl. The NBA off-season has thankfully turned into one of life’s grand circuses, so we’ve been good there. This is an Olympics year, that great summer bonus.
But now what? There are bigger social concerns than not having a game to watch on TV, but for the moment it’s front-and-centre on a lot of people’s minds.
Karl Marx said religion was the opiate of the masses, but if sports is where we now congregate, we’re headed for new territory: What do we look like when we’re all undergoing withdrawal at once? Is there enough methadone in the world?
The other downtimes are short, usually offering a chance to dive into another distraction. Worst case they come with an endpoint.
This is different. We’re all going to be itching and scratching at once, craving the same high that isn’t coming.
Even in the quaint old days of early this week when the NBA and NHL were contemplating playing their schedule without fans as a temporary measure it didn’t seem like all that devastating a blow. The number of people that actually go to games is a small fraction of those that watch from home anyway.
It was fun to contemplate what a game without the crowd at Scotiabank Arena growing restless with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ power play would sound like coming across the airwaves, or a Toronto Raptors game without Kyle Lowry getting “MVP” chants at the free-throw line (which there should be more of) or a New York Knicks game without fans chanting “sell-the-team” at James Dolan.
Done properly, it could have been a boon. The over-production of the in-arena experience has created a barrier between what sports really sound like and the dressed-up version we get through our big screens or even in person.
Maybe a fans-free arena would mean more chances to hear what the Boston Bruins’ Brad Marchand is really yapping about all the time – or at least the parts that wouldn’t be bleeped out. The real crunch from a big hit or the tuning fork ping of a puck off the bar.
In basketball, the squeak of sneakers on wood and the never-ending conversation among players and between the bench on those on the floor could make the game even more compelling for the hardcore.
But in the matter of hours all of that changed. When Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz became “patient zero” – the first athlete in the major North American sports to test positive for COVID-19 – it set off a chain of events that are unprecedented.
The NBA suspended its season and one by one almost every significant competition followed suit. For a sports fan it was like watching pieces of your house fly off during a tornado: It started piece by piece and in short order there was nothing left.
The NHL, done. March Madness, which occupies so much time over three spring weekends, bringing together true fans and the “I’m just in it for the pool” crowd at once? Done. Spring training? Over. Boom, boom, boom.
“Well, all right then. Maybe I’ll stick close to home and watch some junior hockey or something,” you might have thought. Done.
Minor hockey, the next generation? Nope. The OHL Cup – the coming-out party for the best minor midgets in their last chance to show out before the OHL draft? That was cancelled Thursday too, with school closings across North America leaving even high school athletes idle.
For me the final, fatal blow was the announcement Friday that the Masters was being postponed. Even for the most casual golf fan hearing that tinkling piano and being soothed by Jim Nantz as the best in the world faced career-defining shots with the shadows growing long on golf’s lushest stage was something to be drawn in by; something to look forward to. It meant spring was near and summer was on the way.
Not now. It feels like a sports winter that will never end. A year ago, Tiger Woods was getting poised to write one of the most compelling comeback stories in sports history. It was an ultimate water cooler moment. This year – or this April anyway – the book will remain dusty and untouched, as will the water cooler.
You feel for Tiger, running out of time to catch Jack Nicklaus. You feel for all the college and amateur athletes who won’t get to put a proper punctuation mark at the end of their seasons or careers.
You feel for all those who have nothing to watch and who have to-do lists staring at them – some of them years in the making – with no excuses left.
The irony is all of this is happening at a moment when so many people will have more time on their never-been-cleaner hands as they ever have. Hunkering down is being encouraged – like those nights when a blizzard is coming – but instead of getting lost in Hockey Night in Canada we’ll all have to watch Peaky Blinders or something. Or maybe read books. Or go for walks. Or play cards.
It’s like you’re a little kid and you’re at the grandparents’ house with the bad cable, except for months, potentially.
This is hard to imagine.
“There’s a game on” has become the rallying cry of our times, except now there’s not.
According to an article I Googled (if the Internet gets shut down because of COVID-19, seriously, I quit) in 2017 Americans spent more than 1 trillion minutes watching sports. A trillion. That’s what you get when you multiply a million by a million. There are 525,000 minutes in a year. By my rough napkin calculations, Americans cumulatively spent more than two million years of time watching sports.
In one year.
That’s just Americans. Soccer has been shut down across Europe and footy fans are even more fanatical, maybe.
Like, we’re all going to have a lot of time on our hands and no end in sight to this forced march into the sports desert.
The NBA says they’ll be out of business for a month at minimum but even commissioner Adam Silver admitted that was just a guess. The Chinese Basketball Association shutdown operations on Feb. 1 and while they’re trying to get back up and running after it seems the virus has flat-lined there, the minimum they will have been off will likely be 10 weeks. The NBA should be so lucky. Since the NHL shares buildings with their hoops brethren in 11 markets, it’s hard to not see hockey following suit.
We could be here a while.
Forever we’ve relied on sports to bring us together. It’s a cliché but anyone — and it felt like everyone — who got invested in the Raptors championship run last spring knows that it was something real and tangible rather than hokey expression. The millions who showed up for the parade in downtown Toronto were not a mirage. You don’t have to look far for those shared moments – the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays, the endless procession of Canadian medals at the Vancouver Olympics and countless shared experiences in between.
But, for now, coming together – sports’ great magic trick of the modern age – is what endangers us most. What a cruel twist.
And so we remain apart, socially distanced, united only by what we all miss most.
Until we meet again, stay well.