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Overwhelmed by the intertwined plagues of Covid-19 and Trumpism, sports didn’t stand a chance in 2020. No wonder I’m weirded out by the strange, metaphorical moments of that last disastrous year and the first days of this one. To mention just three among so many: Dr. Anthony Fauci’s errant pitch on opening day of the Major League Baseball season; Ben and Jerry’s announcement of its newest ice cream flavor, Colin Kaepernick’s Changing the Whirled; and President Trump’s awarding of the Medal of Freedom to three pro golfers the day after his own all-too-“proud” team stormed the Capitol.
Much of sports was crammed into bubbles of not only physical isolation but also intense scrutiny that led to the inevitable certainty that sports still does matter (though far less than it did before the reign of Trump)—but also that something is truly the matter with sports. The greedy, entitled manner in which most of its overseers, college and pro, responded to the dangers of the virus illustrated vividly their commercial priorities. Profitable games über alles. It also mirrored Trump’s unmasked attitude toward the citizenry he had sworn to protect, especially the 450,000 virus victims he helped to kill.
And now, as the National Football League season ended with the Super Bowl, that annual spectacle celebrating socialism for billionaires and patriotism for poor people, it’s hard not to wonder whether sports, at least as we’ve known it, can survive exposure to not just to the coronavirus but also Trumpism Lite.
The Three Promises
Like democracy, sports has been up for grabs ever since the big three promises offered by its corporate version—real live amusement, a moral crucible for exhibiting individual models of behavior, and a sense of belonging (that is, fandom)—disappeared or were co-opted just when we needed them most.
Having spent the last 64 years as a reporter and sports columnist, mostly covering jock culture’s relationship to the larger society, none of this surprised me. (I expected no less once I grasped the nature of the pandemics of both Trumpism and the coronavirus.) What did, however, sadden me was the diminishment of sports at its brightest: the power to enrich young lives, bring health to older ones, inspire, and entertain. No such luck in the Covid-19 season.
At its darkest, of course, sports have always fueled caste divisions, sexism, and racism, reckless cheating, and the kind of bullying domination that can be found from schoolyards to the online universe to global politics. While Donald Trump may have been the quintessential jock culture president (and bully), his malpractice certainly came out of an old playbook.
In 1938, the year I was born, for instance, one of the preeminent sportswriters of his moment, Paul Gallico, published a valedictory book, A Farewell to Sport, before graduating to the higher pop literary leagues by writing, among other works, The Poseidon Adventure. Gallico’s lofty musings on Blacks, women, Jews, and deplorables in A Farewell to Sport were not only conventional for his time but—sadly enough—still resonate in today’s Trumpian world.
What I learned as a teenager from his book included such gems of jock culture as: “Like all people who spring from what we call low origins, [Babe] Ruth never had any inhibitions”; Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias became one of the greatest athletes of the century “simply because she would not or could not compete with women at their own best game—man-snatching. It was an escape, a compensation”; and the reason basketball “appeals to the Hebrew…is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart aleckness.” Gallico’s racial observations—that the success of Black boxers could be attributed to their thick skulls, for instance—were no less stupid and bigoted.
The struggle against such sensibilities in sports has made a real difference in recent years as an impressive new wave of activism emerged among athletes, which, in turn, spawned “woke” journalists, fans, and even management. That’s why sports wasn’t completely overwhelmed by the despicable values of our recent president. But it didn’t escape the damage caused when those three big corporate promises were essentially replaced (however temporarily we don’t yet know) by a new “sport” that, along with the coronavirus, would dominate the news: Trumpism.
Elites Versus Lunchpails
As a start, Trumpism replaced sports as America’s most compelling live entertainment last year because The Donald intuitively knew how to provide what normally makes that field so successful and addictive—constant conflict, surprises, unscripted action, and a set of heroes and villains to cheer, jeer, or even feel empathy for, like former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s family.
Conflict is intrinsic to sports fandom. It’s the glue that keeps us in the cult. In sports, conflict is naturally embodied in the games themselves, but also in the relationships among the players, coaches, owners, and especially the fan bases. In New York City, for example, the supposed caste differences between the Yankees (elitist) and the Mets (lunch pail) were always vigorously promoted to sell tickets and newspapers. It made no difference, for instance, that for years the Mets’ millionaire owner was in bed with Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff.
Then there are the never-ending bar bickers over who was better—say, the late Henry Aaron or Willie Mays? And when Tom Brady was the New England Patriots quarterback, who couldn’t argue windily about how much of his success was due to his own talents and how much to those of team coach Bill Belichick? Now, of course, with Brady leading a new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to a Super Bowl, the argument seems not just moot, but far less important than the way Belichick, also a Trump supporter, rejected a Presidential Medal of Freedom after the January 6 assault on the Capitol. That’s the news, even for sports fans, these days.
No wonder relatively benign jock chatter couldn’t compete in the pandemic election moment with Trump-style conflict; with those breathless, unmasked rallies of his and their undercurrent of sadism; with the president’s continual news-making flip-flops in tactics; with the constant fear of hacking, disloyalty, and betrayal; or with a riveting and endlessly revolving and evolving cast of jettisoned officials like Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, FBI Director Jim Comey, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House Director of Communications (for 10 days) Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci, and so on—and on and on. We hardly got to hate them before they were gone.
And then, of course, came the Big One. No Super Bowl has ever exceeded expectations the way the terror attack on the Capitol, supported by some members of Congress and urged on by Coach Trump, rattled our sense of security, horrifying, stunning, and (yes) keeping us glued to our screens in a way that no football game ever could.
Hack Teams, Not Countries
In addition, sports lost its role as America’s (supposed) moral crucible once the president’s transactional ethics overshadowed the values of traditional sportsmanship, however hypocritical and flawed they were. In the age of Trumpism, the 2019 revelation that the 2017 Houston Astros had been electronically stealing pitching signs to win the World Series seemed quaint, if not beside the point, at a time when Russian hackers were suspected of having electronically done the equivalent to try to tip the 2016 election to Trump and possibly alter the history of the world.
A credible case can be made that the transgressions and lies of Trumpism opened the way for a moral moratorium in sports in what would otherwise have been a set of far more headline-grabbing scandals, ranging from the Astros-style sign-stealing caper of the Boston Red Sox to the so-called Varsity Blues scandal in which rich parents, including Hollywood actors, bought their children’s way into college by passing them off as athletes.
It’s hardly as if sports had been an unsullied enterprise before Trump came along. Consider the exploitation of “amateurs,” especially in the Olympic Games, or those “student-athletes” in college sports; the blind eyes turned toward performance-enhancing drugs, whether self-administered or given out by team doctors; not to speak of pro football’s appalling cover-up of the extent of brain trauma among its players.
In all of that, at least, there was a sense of shameful wrongdoing in the cover-ups involved, nothing like the jaw-dropping blatancy of the cases of the pardoned presidential confidant Roger Stone, national security adviser Michael Flynn, and, of course, that classic pardoner Trump himself, unashamed bad guys all.
Compare them with the miscreants of sports: Pete Rose, who secretly bet on games while playing and managing baseball; Barry Bonds, who allegedly abused steroids to become the most productive home-run hitter of all time; and Lance Armstrong, who bullied colleagues as he juiced his way to seven Tour de France victories. Those guys, as reviled as they might have been, simply don’t belong in the same league with the White House gang. Unlike the shunned Barry Bonds, denied a place in baseball’s Hall of Fame, Trump’s crew have already admitted themselves to their own ongoing hall of shame.
The president’s two impeachments might have been satisfying to many of us, as would be his Senate conviction (and being barred from future office), even if neither will happen. However, the only meaningful moral punishment Trump seems to have felt deeply was when the very white, old-school Professional Golf Association, or PGA, pulled its championship from his New Jersey golf club in the wake of the January 6 assault on the Capitol. That was the single act that reportedly “gutted” him, the only knockdown punch that truly landed, however trivial it might seem to the rest of us in this anything but sporty season.
Beware the Left-Behinds
Finally, Trump’s base is too often described—and dismissed—as a mosh pit of maskless deplorables, violent and brainless as British soccer thugs. I think that’s a leftish mistake and that their support for him is a far more complicated phenomenon than a former sports reporter can indeed grasp.
As it happens, I know a few of them, including a couple of friends of long standing, one a sophisticated lawyer who cherishes the sense of belonging to something with an undercurrent of danger. And then, more typically, I suspect, there’s the Brooklyn guy who’s always felt disregarded by Manhattan elites. Personally, I connect the Trump base to the crowd of 1960s Mets fans I used to cover, Manhattan elite box-seat holders and working-class bleacherites alike, all united in their feeling of victimhood, their fear and envy of Yankee fans (and the World Series championships they always seemed to end up with). Mets fans, when I covered them, were the sports deplorables of that moment, former Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants fans who felt left behind, dropped in the dust, when those two teams suddenly moved to the Golden State of California in 1957.
As Mets fans, their gratitude for having a new team to cheer faded after several losing seasons, but their bonding with each other was real and understandable rather than deplorable. The team came into being in 1962, and survivors of that era still have a shared emotional history and language that can seem like a cause, classic hats and T-shirts included. Such a cause comes with permission to hate the team’s enemies, call them Yankees, libtards, or the media (that enemy of the people). And Trumpism’s fans may, in the years to come, have a similar experience.
Nor are they alone in their sometime violence. Sports fans, especially of college teams, often express themselves with violence, from fighting in the stands to tearing down goal posts. While the sports media officially disapproves of such behavior, it also whips them on in its reportage with the constant use of emotionally charged words like hate, revenge, and humiliation. And that’s not merely the product of lazy sports writing (although there is that), but a recognition of the audience’s perceived need for a certain kind of reinforcement which gives importance to their rooting.
Whenever the pandemic is more or less over and Donald Trump becomes just part of the past, not the present and the future, the question is: Will American sports—at least in its present form with the dominance of its current major pastimes—recover from Trumpism? After all, slouching toward us are not just the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and crew, but e-sports, particularly video games as spectator entertainment and, with them, universal gambling from home, bar, and arena consoles. That, too, could be, as the broadcasters like to say, a game-changer.
Meanwhile, at the end of this deadly season, a Super Bowl arrived with what should have been enough of a sportswriter’s dream backstory to top any imaginable weekend. The defending champion Kansas City Chiefs with their Mozart of a 25-year-old quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, considered the future of the sport, against the perennially mediocre Tampa Bay Buccaneers with their recently purchased ($50 million for two years plus incentives) 43-year-old quarterback, Tom Brady, arguably the best of all time.
Yet that fabulous match-up in that most Trumpian of sports has faded into the woodwork when compared to the recent contest at the Capitol between treason and reason, the spectacle that eventually confirmed Trump as a loser, but left the left of us shaken.
And yet, for many of us still hoping to be hyped on hope, there’s always the dream that last season’s toxicity can be assuaged by the promise of the old-style game around the corner. Perhaps we can seek salvation in the springtime ritual of a new season as pitchers and catchers all limber up for that Bidenesque renewal called baseball.