One of the many frustrations people have had with the ongoing battles between Major League Baseball owners and the players union about how to get the sport going in 2020 — currently, neither party can even get the other to review their proposals, let alone negotiate on them — is that the two sides are blowing an incredible opportunity to return on July 4. The idea that baseball — a sport whose best players left at the height of their careers to fight in World War II, whose New York teams were a balm after September 11 — is inextricably tied to trying moments in American history is ingrained in the romanticism of the game. Surely owners had that in mind when they proposed Independence Day as a resumption point in the first place. July 4! America! Hot dogs! Apple pie! How could baseball miss such a fastball right down the middle?
But suddenly, after the last week of American history, the idea of a glorious return of the game on the nation’s birthday seems less triumphant than almost unseemly. After two months inside, the populace seemed starved, downright lustful for live sports. But now? Would you find it appropriate to sit down and watch a baseball game? Or would you find it obscene?
This is not baseball’s fault, of course. It has felt inappropriate to talk about any sort of diversion in the wake of this tumult, the president’s rapid public meltdown, the gassing of peaceful American citizens for a photo op, and the sense that everything might just be falling apart; I haven’t noticed people having heated debates about the Dakota Johnson romantic comedy that came out last weekend either, after all. But it sure does make the rush to get back in time for an artificial, rally-together-America deadline seem awfully unnecessary, and maybe even actively ill-advised. Sports, like much of entertainment, exist as a distraction. But, boy, does it seem irresponsible to be distracted right now.
You can tell how disorienting this is for the already-quite-disoriented sports leagues by the way they handled their public relations over the weekend. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell swiftly ended the only run of good press he’s ever had — mostly the result of looking sleepy during the NFL Draft — by crafting a statement that not only didn’t include the word “police,” but of course ignored the inconvenient fact that when Colin Kaepernick tried to protest police brutality, the league essentially banned him. The New York Islanders curiously tweeted in honor of “the brave officers who go to work every day seeing the human being and not the color of one’s skin, we thank you for protecting us.” Even Michael Jordan spoke up, though whether he did so as well as LeBron James will surely be a subject of sports talk-radio debate for weeks to come.
Some teams got the messaging and sentiment right, but it was mostly players themselves — in many cases the only people in their organizations who could truly understand what the protests were about — who spoke out most clearly. It is telling that so many did so outside the purview of their teams, or even their professions. Former NBA player Stephen Jackson spoke passionately about George Floyd, who had been a childhood friend of his from Texas. He stood alongside Jamie Foxx and Minnesota Timberwolves players Karl-Anthony Towns (who had just lost his mother to COVID-19) and Josh Okogie, but their presence didn’t resemble anything like the usual “let’s go out and beat racism! let’s run up the score on racism!” platitudes that you usually see from sports organizations, and that you routinely saw on social media. The players who have broken through have spoken as men and women, even as victims of police violence, not as athletes. It has made the Official Statements of Unity in These Trying Times seem all the more inadequate, and increasingly unwelcome.
The NBA, typically, has been better than other leagues about this — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich cut loose on Trump and police violence to The Nation’s Dave Zirin — but again, these were issues that Popovich (and his fellow coach Steve Kerr, who said “this is why racists shouldn’t be allowed to be President” on Twitter) had already spoken up about, and ones that have little to do with the sport itself. And while the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver have been ahead of the curve on issues of race and power, eventually they have to get back to the business of playing games. Doing so has been heralded as a “return to normal” since the beginning of this pandemic. But that idea, and that phrasing, looks reactionary, even retrograde and damaging, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the demonstrations across the country. “Return to normal” stops sounding like a plea for reopening the economy and the world of sports and more like something we should be actively fighting against. The whole argument for getting sports back quickly — other than the financial argument — was to give us all some way to get away from our troubles and fears. But maybe we should be facing those troubles and fears. Maybe that’s what this is all about.
There is still a long way to go for sports to return. The NBA has to figure out its format and health procedures; MLB and the MLS have to figure out their financial issues; college sports has to figure out how in the world to justify unpaid college students smashing into each other during a public-health crisis. There is much work to be done. Perhaps it is best if this work is done in private. On Sunday night, the union-management battles of both MLB and MLS splashed into public view — the MLB players gave their seemingly reasonable response to the owners’ proposal but were reportedly met with even more contention (though there might be at last a small sliver of negotiating room in that regard), and the MLS owners threatened to lock out their players before a summer tournament in Orlando began. Regardless of your thoughts on the merits of each side’s viewpoints, when you looked around at America burning, it was hard not to think, Honestly, who gives a shit about any of this right now? Eventually sports are going to return, and we will all cheer. But maybe it’s okay if, in this particular moment, they take their time.