Watching Sports While the World Spins Out of Control

Confined and anxious because of the pandemic? Fearful for your home and having trouble breathing because of smoke from raging wildfires? Overwhelmed by high winds and floods because of Hurricane Sally? Afraid to go out because of violent altercations between police and Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrators? Worried that your partial employment checks will run out and that your job will disappear in the near future? Ashamed at how many child migrants your country will accept from the devastation on Lesbos? Distraught that Trump might win on November 3 and not sure if a Biden victory would make a significant difference?

While legend has it that Emperor Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned and history tells us that the orchestra played Songe d’Automne (or Nearer, My God, to Thee depending on the version) while the Titanic sank, you can now find peace and tranquillity by tuning in ESPN and any number of sports channels.

The television choices for viewing sports these days are a devoted fans paradise. Take your pick: Big Ten college football is returning just in time to join the regular season of the National Football League. Tennis fans had the US Open and can now look at the Italian Open and soon the French Open at Roland Garros. Basketball fan? Get into the playoffs and watch to see if LeBron James can win a third title with a different team. Baseball fan? You’re probably already into the shortened season and preparing for the playoffs to see if the Bronx Bombers can make a deep run for the title. A follower of Tiger Woods? See if the surgically repaired Woods can win another major at the US Open at Winged Foot. Even hockey fans can catch the teams trying to hoist Stanley’s famous Cup.

All of these sports events are part of an alternative reality. Check out ESPN Sports Center or some podcast of jock-bantering, and you are far away from any health, political or financial crisis. The sports world has created literal and figurative bubbles. The game will go on. Athletes will be tested. Confinement rules will be enforced we are told. Racket touches replace hugs at the net after tennis matches. Stadiums are basically empty. But the games must go on.

Think back to the 1936 Olympic Summer Games. As Hitler continued his rise to power on a platform of anti-Semitism and the superiority of the Aryan race, the games went on. Marty Glickman, an American-Jewish sprinter was replaced on a relay team by the US Olympic Committee so as not to offend Hitler. Myth has it that Hitler left the stadium to snub the Black sprinter Jesse Owens when he won one his four gold medals. But the games went on.

Athletes have reacted to today’s political situation. Matches and games were postponed in the interest of BLM. Players and coaches have taken knees during the anthem. Sweat shirts and banners are now prominently displayed supporting social justice. There has been progress concerning athletes and athletic organizations.

And the fans? There is something perplexing that in a time of such upheaval, some stability tries to return via watching sports. For just as Trump represents a return to America’s 1950s superiority with all its racial implications, sports fans (couch potatoes?) can now turn off Fox News or even CNN or MSNBC to watch the thrill of sports. But can all the horrors of the fires, hurricanes, riots, financial downturn, migrant desperation, Trump press conferences, Biden mediocrity be put on the back burner as we root for our favorite team or player?

Is ESPN the Nero of modern time? Are the jock broadcasters the band leader who led the music as the Titanic went down? Are the officials who decide that college football can be played similar to the members of the American Olympic Committee who substituted for Marty Glickman? The same who sent John Carlos and Tommie Smith home after they raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games?

All of these questions avoid the most obvious one: Should we fans still be watching? Are we looking for some kind of normal amid the trauma of the “new normal”? Are we seeking another reality to the horrors we see on the news? Black athletes have spoken and continue to speak out. What should we fans do?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.