In his seminal book “Homo Ludens,” the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga argues that play is bedrock to culture, that a society doesn’t truly become one until it plays games. To him, playing is what makes us a community, one of the things that binds us together as a species.
What the world would look like without sports? We finally know the answer to the question, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps you’d contemplated this outlandish scenario before, over beers at the bar, or in a freshman philosophy class, but it existed only as a thought experiment placing you in some joyless, more austere world.
As it turns out, in our sportsless world things are the same, just a little blander, a little less exciting, a little less vexing too. A lot less communal. Huizinga was right about that.
Sports still exist, of course. The teams are still there, as are the players. So are the leagues, for the most part (RIP, XFL’s second attempt). It’s live sports that are gone, for now.
But the realization is slowly setting in that when those sports return, if they all return, they will be changed. At the risk of sounding like the guy who predicted that the internet would never catch on, sports as we knew them are already gone. It will never be quite the same.
So much of what we know and love about sports will have to be re-thought, starting with how we can safely gather to watch them — especially when attendance gets bigger than, say, a Little League game.
Because we already know that live sports are an incubator for a virus, that our games are culpable in a pandemic. We know that a February soccer game in Milan massively proliferated the COVID-19 outbreak in both Italy and Spain in a Champions League match that came to be known as “Game Zero.”
We also know that San Francisco was likely spared a much bigger outbreak when the 49ers blew a fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl, saving the city from a championship parade, saving lives.
President Trump can hold all the conference calls with sports league commissioners that he wants, but the conditions have to be right to reopen our stadiums, or even to play without fans. That means keeping the players and staff safe, first of all, through intricate testing and stringent isolation — as the German Bundesliga soccer league will attempt next month — until a vaccine is found and widely administered. And then, on a much broader scale, the safety of thousands of fans will have to be safeguarded as well.
It will be a long time before we even have that capacity, and the complications that lurk therein are myriad.
But even when we get to such a point, the consumer experience of our live sports will be very different.
Even in a post-COVID world, it’s not inconceivable that stadiums will test people for viruses when they scan their tickets. In China, some fast food and delivery services already track the body temperatures of their workers — even though that ignores the threat from asymptomatic carriers. The athletes will certainly be monitored more closely — after NBA player Rudy Gobert accelerated the NBA’s shutdown when he tested positive — and invasively.
Sports TV may look different when this is all over. We could see the end of sideline interviews. Of jam-packed press conferences. Of players jumping into the stands after scoring touchdowns. Of fans waving their hands at NBA players entering and exiting the arenas for high-fives. Fox Sports may even have to reassess its immutable passion for seeing how many large men it can fit around a single punditry desk on its game-day sets.
Then there’s the psychological trauma — because living through a pandemic of this magnitude will reverberate for a lot of people. Will you ever look at a large crowd the same? Even if you think all of this was overblown, can you honestly say that you won’t hesitate, even for the briefest moments, before committing to being with lots of strangers in close quarters?
The threat of a second wave, which seems inevitable after this period of social distancing is finally relaxed, will loom, as will further disruptions. It could devastate public trust in their safety at events with lots of people when they’ve lived through this more than once, when it no longer feels aberrant. Stadiums may have to be redesigned to assuage that fear.
The economic toll to sports teams and leagues will be such that we’ll reemerge to a very different-looking sports world. Some teams won’t be there anymore when we come back. Some leagues won’t. The XFL is already gone. The threat is probably greater in other countries, where the leagues aren’t as centralized and socialized as ours, sharing revenue and divvying up the financial burdens as we do, although women’s sports stateside are particularly vulnerable.
The sporting landscape will be different when we come back. The way we go to games will be different. The way we treat our athletes; the way we watch; the way we celebrate — all different.
The very notion that sports will go back to normal is fanciful. Normal is dead. And thus normal sports are dead. Just as 9/11 changed air travel forever, maintaining the stringent new rules that were adopted in perpetuity even after the hijacking of planes ceased to be as much of a threat, the specter of another virus outbreak will remain even after COVID-19 recedes.
In sports, as in all else, we now live in the age of pandemics.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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