The year we lost sports showed us just how much they anchor our lives

In an unprecedented year, Donnovan Bennett looks back at how a global pandemic and social justice issues changed sports in 2020.

We all know the feeling by now, aimless days, weeks sliding off the calendar, uneasy, unsettled, restless sleep. It is the COVID malaise, familiar even for those who have been lucky enough not to be directly touched by the virus, as the patterns that mark and anchor our daily lives evaporate.

Ritual matters in ways that we usually don’t usually need to articulate — and for fans, sports are a part of that. The sameness, the repeating signposts, provide a framework within which we manage the aspects of life that are not so predictable. Take away those comforting points of reference and it is as though sand is shifting beneath our feet. Try to re-establish a sense of normal when normal isn’t actually an option, and it’s still not going to feel quite right.

It hasn’t felt quite right for a long time now.

In the wake of Rudy Gobert’s positive test back in March, nine months and a million years ago, when NBA players walked off the court, the game was shut down, and the crowd was asked to leave the arena, the penny dropped — but in truth only to a point.

Up until then, it had been a sports year like every other.

The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl. Andy Reid finally got the monkey off his back, and Patrick Mahomes was hailed as a player for the ages. Not an novel narrative.

The NHL trade deadline passed, with the usual excess of analysis, and thoughts had turned to which teams might qualify for the playoffs, as has been the conversation forever.

Ballplayers reported to Florida and Arizona, and almost a month into spring training, all was bliss. In the case of the Toronto Blue Jays, returning once more to their seasonal home in Dunedin, the usual feelings of renewal and possibility were reinforced by the arrival of one of the biggest free-agent signings in franchise history to join a group of bright young talents.

Next on the calendar were the NCAA tournament and opening day and the Masters and the NHL and NBA playoffs. If you are a sports fan, those dates, as much as any solstice, are the annual points of demarcation.

And then, they were all gone…

In their place emerged the new reality, though it was initially defined by wishful thinking: Baseball was pushing opening day back only to the middle of April. Following a short delay, the NHL and NBA planned to play out their full regular seasons, though the playoffs might extend into the beginning of summer. Other interruptions were painted as short term and temporary.

It took a few weeks — weeks of fear and uncertainty and lockdown and daily press conferences and dire warnings — before it became abundantly clear that the schedules of sport, as a tiny subset of the schedules of our lives, were about to be upended as they had never been before. In wartime, the leagues had played on. The shock wave of 9/11, which felt so unsettling in the moment and definitively altered the way we live our lives still, barely interrupted the sports calendar — even in New York City. Heightened security, scanners everywhere, soldiers with guns, sure. But the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City all came off as planned.

This turned into something else entirely, a disruption that is still without boundaries.

First there was nothing on the sports calendar. Then drone racing and professional bull riding and the NFL draft and games of H-O-R-S-E and the Bundesliga arrived to partly fill the void. The great restart in the summer was much anticipated, and a tremendous relief.

But watching games played in empty stadiums and arenas, watching bubbled NHL playoffs in the heat of summer and bubbled NBA playoffs in the early Autumn, watching the Blue Jays qualify for an expanded playoffs following a 60-game season while competing in exile in Buffalo or golfers rushing through short autumn days in Augusta with nary a blossom in sight, only reinforced the sense of dislocation.

It was certainly better than nothing. It was a welcome distraction. It was harmless fun. It was fresh content. It brought the communities of fandom together, virtually. But just like that online holiday party, it became difficult to watch and suspend disbelief without pining for life as it used to be.

As this godawful year draws to a close, there are finally flickers of normal — including fans in the stands for some American football games, fans in the Kop at Anfield, both of which feel from a distance both heartening and reckless. And at least now an end — staggered, not definitive, too tentative to fully celebrate just yet — is in sight. Eventually the vaccines will make a dent, and at some point in 2021, getting up and having breakfast and heading to work or to class, enjoying a family dinner, going to a movie or a concert or a club, planning a vacation, and all of the other rituals of daily life will resume.

When they do, for a little while, anyway, they are going to seem anything but ordinary.

The same is true with sports. That moment when you walk into an arena or stadium, emerge into the bowl, feel the chill of the ice or hear the squeak of sneakers on hardwood or the smack of bat on ball, take in the sounds and smells and see the uniform colours, so much more vivid in person, will be magical. Even something as pedestrian as flipping on a screen to watch your favourite team and hearing and seeing a real live crowd, will be a moment to be savoured. Looking ahead and knowing that the sports calendar is unfolding as it should will have the feel of liberation.

It will all become banal soon enough. Nobody is going to want to remember where we’ve been. Nostalgia for 2020 will never become a thing.

But every once in a while, we’ll pause and notice that our feet are firmly planted, that the ground is no longer moving.

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