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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.