Brent Steele By: Brent Steele
Professor of Political Science and International Relations
View profile and Diary

09 Jul 2020 : Mid-summer in the DIY country: US Sports Talk as Pandemic Expertise

The Do It Yourself, American Exceptionalism approach to the pandemic rolls on in the United States. While most of the rest of the world has suppressed Covid, the US is a country experiencing déjà vu. It is a land where daily records are now being set for new cases. But it is mainly the land of again. Where the ICU’s and hospitals are once again being overrun, this time throughout the South and the West. PPE is again scarce. Tests are again in short supply – turnaround time for tests is now creeping back up to 5-8 days. And mask mandates are every bit the political struggle that the six(ish) weeks of ‘lockdown’ were earlier this Spring. All while the US President threatens parents, teachers and kids, that the latter MUST go back to school in the Fall or else he will pull funding for the already resource-scarce American education system.

But the US moves onward. It's a ‘can do’ spirit that really is only about returning Americans to their American creature comforts. Getting ‘back to normal’ was always going to be incomplete without major sports, and so following NASCAR racing, and Professional Golf (two sports that can enable physically distant competition), the remaining major sports are lining up to (re)start their seasons, each with their own (DIY) approach and plans to get people into close contact in spaces where they will be breathing heavy. Major League Soccer has started its season at Disneyworld. Major League Baseball is scheduled to start its now shortened season at the end of July, but other than the reduction in games, players will be traveling to ballparks, which will even hold a few fans in the stadiums. The National Basketball Association, having suspended play back in March, will resume with a modified playoff schedule in a ‘bubble’ environment in Orlando that is meant to hermetically seal the players from the widespread transmissive environment of the US (and especially Florida). The NFL has canceled some of its preseason games but it presses on with plans for training camp in the next month. It held a very successful NFL draft during the (first) height of the pandemic and fans are told it can handle planning and regulating for a season. And then there are college sports, especially college football, which is an obscenely lucrative money-making venture and an integral part of Autumn weekends in the US.

But Covid doesn’t care if you’re an athlete and it doesn’t care if the US really really wants its sports back. A number of players in each of these sports have tested positive for Covid. The intense protocols for practices and games for the major sports may indeed protect the players (but in heavy breathing environments at close quarters?). But the athletes themselves live in the US, and no matter how many precautions they take, many of them are young, and social. And so the raging community spread that is a result of the DIY pandemic in the US is impacting them as well. Two MLS teams (so far) have withdrawn from the season because of positive tests amongst players. Some NBA teams have had to suspend practices. So have MLB teams. Several PGA players have dropped out of tourneys once they tested positive. 37 athletes across the various sports at the University of North Carolina tested positive. The Ivy League has postponed (indefinitely) its Fall football season, calling into question whether the major college conferences (like the ‘Big 5’) will follow, or whether they will stand firm and proceed with a much needed boondoggle for their fiscally-strapped universities and colleges.

All of this puts into laser focus the major role that sports plays in US life. It was the testing positive of a Utah Jazz (my local team in Salt Lake) basketball player – Rudy Gobert – that led to the suspension of a game, and then all games in the NBA. Up until that point, the US had stubbornly refused to ‘close up’, despite what was painfully obvious from the example of especially Italy at that time. But Gobert’s positive test, followed quickly by his teammate and Jazz star Donovan Mitchell’s, seemed to be the catalyst that turned not only all of the US sports world, but US society, around in a 180 fashion. Within a week of the NBA’s suspended season, all other major sports followed suit. And almost all other facets of US society then shut down. It was as if the US was waiting on its sports to take the first step, and then, when it did, Americans followed.

But the shutdowns were brief and troubled. And so the US is trying to get back to normal, despite all the evidence that most major sports face an uphill climb in a society that is being ravaged by a pandemic worse than ever before. Nowhere is this tension – between intent and outcome, between dogged determination for getting ‘back to normal’ and the even more dogged determination of a virus to continue infecting and killing people – more evident than US sports talk radio. Radio hosts working on national networks like ESPN, Fox Sports, ‘Mad Dog’ Radio, PGA tour radio, and others, have been debating the re-start of sports ever since March. And indeed, at the beginning of June, during a lull in pandemic growth, it looked like sports would start up again. Perhaps the US could follow the example of the English Premier League, or the German Bundesliga? They seemed to be going forward in a semi-normal fashion! No longer speaking in the hypothetical, these programs would now have something real to discuss. But all of that is now, one month later, in doubt.

I should mention that I am a devoted sports fan. I get why it’s so vital to us – both in an individual and structural/cultural sense. My days, and especially weekends, are built on the rhythms of sports. I like to listen to baseball games throughout the week while I’m walking my dog. On the weekends, I love watching college football, and listening to my Chicago Bears play-by-play. My daughter has become an avid fan as well – it fits her competitive nature and I have so much fun watching matches, games, and tourneys with her. I played sports, albeit poorly, in high school and a bit in college. I spend most of my time during games texting my family (also avid sports fans) back in Iowa where I’m from. It’s our main connection in an otherwise distant and busy world.  At the structural level, sports are (as mentioned) HUGE revenue sources. There is a corporate-sports industrial complex built around advertisers, media distribution, merchandise, and ticket sales. And the US is a hyper-competitive country. Its default ordering principle is hierarchy, and so seeing ‘champions’ crowned and genuflecting at the deity of ‘winning’ is built into the US’s core DNA, despite (or perhaps because of?) its own rapid hegemonic decline.

But what has been fascinating for me is that many of the national sports talk show hosts have become, for the sports fans that listen to them, the authorities on how and in what fashion the sports will come back. That it’s obvious they don’t know WTF they are talking about only seems to enhance their credibility.  Much of what passes for ‘analysis’ on (national) sports talk in the US is basically wannabe macho bravado – more about taking extreme positions and yelling at one another to score ‘points’ than to really analyze or shed light on processes and competitive (on the field) outcomes. But it’s the extremely angry affective environment of these shows that proves so arresting. As is the populist certainty that the sports talk show hosts, because they issue their assertions with SO much certainty, actually know better than the medical experts that sports truly can comeback. As that comeback becomes more and more shrouded in doubt, the rage amplifies, the certainty solidifies, and the calls that all this is just too much ‘gloom and doom’ (I’ve heard that phrase at LEAST twice daily over the past few weeks of listening to these shows) get louder.

I have grown out of (or away from) the national sports talk machismo aesthetic, although I still find it fascinating. It is a perfect match for what Sophie Harman has noted as the gendered dynamics of the pandemic, that masculine roles unfold into expectations to ‘tough’ out the pandemic and therefore generate more reckless behavior (and thus more costs) as a result. That there are limits to toughness, to human capacity, is lost on these people. As a result, this kind of bravado has met its perfect match in a pandemic – play through an injury, play through a pandemic. But this isn’t only reflective of the issues shattering the US’s ability to respond to the pandemic. It is reproductive of those issues. The audience listens to these shows likely because it soothes their cognitive dissonance in a DIY pandemic country. People want someone, especially someone with swagger and certainty – you know, someone unlike those ‘scientific experts’ on TV who caveat everything and are cautious and measured in their tone and substance – to tell them this is all so overblown and sports can and WILL comeback. In that sense, national sports talk radio is a microcosm of the US itself – ignore the scientific experts and find someone on Facebook, or in your neighborhood, or in your church, or at the pub or gas station, that really knows ‘better’, and go with that. Further, the national sports talk show hosts can only talk so long in the abstract before they will need to have some ‘action’ to spout off about. If the seasons are postponed, some (many?) will lose their jobs. So they double down on their certainty even during a time of exponential case increase.

I don’t envy the difficult decisions facing universities across the country. They have a challenge for dealing with the return of students, as well as what to do with big-time college sporting events that prove to be such a financial lifeline to US universities. This is especially so in yet another recession that looks like it, too, will be treated with crack-smokingly stupid austerity and moralistic talk. Unlike pro sports, universities make money not only from the TV deals but also from fans in the stands, and from people spending their money on (licensed) merchandise. College football is difficult to postpone to the late winter, as it will conflict with the NFL draft and thus lead to a flight of erstwhile aspiring professionals from playing the postponed season, for fear of injury and radically damaging their draft status. That college football players generate so much money, but are not paid (other than scholarships) only incentivizes this flight more.

The local sports talk stations, like 670 the Score out of Chicago (that I listen to on occasion, considering my allegiance to the Bears), have a different take on the pandemic. Local sports journalists tend to be less histrionic, more cerebral. While national sports hosts continue to rail on the ‘panic merchants’ who dare to claim that Covid is serious, and continue to argue that major sports can continue, local hosts point out all the flaws in this logic. The Score’s hosts, like Matt Spiegel and Dan Bernstein, have argued that community spread is a deep generative structure that will continue, over and over again, to impact the sports leagues, all of them, so long as the pandemic continues to rage. Just like that community spread will impact, also over and over again, the other institutions that shape US life – like the US education system and the American economy. These local sports journalists ask the basic and difficult questions that have eluded the national hosts in their daily race to prove their manhood: What happens if a team travels and the night before the game one of the players tests positive? Should the entire team forfeit? Or be quarantined in the host city? What if a team games the system and hides the positive test until after the game? What if the turnaround on tests is longer than 15 minutes? And what about false positives? False NEGATIVES?!  Matt Spiegel of the Score recently issued a very pragmatic observation: the approach at the beginning of the pandemic shouldn’t have relied on science and rationality. It should have spoken instead to the romanticism of the sports fan: Shelter in place everyone! Practice good hygiene, wear masks, but not to save lives. We know you don’t really care about grandma and grandpa and people with pre-existing conditions. Do all these measures, and stick with them, to bring your precious sports back as soon as possible.

That I find this counterfactual incredibly persuasive makes it even more depressing. I think this could have worked. I think that the mechanics of ‘reopening’ were based on the panicked actionism of the US consumer confusing ‘needs’ with ‘wants’. But taking the metaphorical medicine of a shutdown for the medium-term benefit of sports returning a few months later? I think this would have given (some) folks pause.

And yet, in a DIY society, with national leadership that lacks anything but tactical temporal horizons and measures, that lacks what I’ve always been told were conservative virtues of restraint, discipline, and responsibility, it’s more than likely that even this kind of pragmatic approach would have faced an uphill battle.

As for the coming months, nobody knows what’s going to transpire. Certainty in the face of radical uncertainty provides quite the juxtaposition. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Or perhaps ironic. Or pathetic. It’d be one or all of these if, you know, so many people hadn't already died. If, sadly, so many more people weren’t about to die.

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