In the draining emotional landscape of 2020, the discussion of whether to allow for the return of professional sports might seem trivial. It isn’t. More than 180 million people watched the 2019 NFL season on television alone. NBA viewership may have decreased in the past few years, but the league’s social media footprint grows by the minute. Across the globe, sports are as important, if not more. In Spain, England, Italy, Mexico, and an almost endless list of countries, weekend soccer is a religious experience. And I don’t use the word lightly. Sports teams offer a sense of community and purpose that is, indeed, almost religious in nature.
For these reasons alone, and with player safety as the top priority, professional sports should be encouraged to return in some form or another. One major hurdle is the absence of fans, an unavoidable condition with no mass immunization in sight and a second wave of the virus looming. Some claim that sports without boisterous fans defeat the purpose. This is shortsighted. “Bringing sports back, even in empty stadiums, returns a bit of humanity to us during a difficult time,” soccer journalist Grant Wahl told me recently. He is right. While the energy from the stands is an unmistakable part of the experience of professional sports, it’s the action on the field that really matters. What’s more, without fans, a rarely seen side of the game suddenly appears for our enjoyment: a glimpse at the madness that is professional sports at its most intimate. There are few things as exciting as gaining a glimpse at the interactions on the field, top athletes at the top of their game using every tool at their disposal to gain an edge.
I know because I’ve seen it.
As a budding sports journalist in the early ’90s covering various training grounds in Mexican soccer, I made it a habit to record as much of the dialogue happening on the field as possible. I bought a microphone that allowed me to capture things that normal tape recorders missed (at least back then). I managed to catch plenty of coaches explaining a strategic play, moving players around like chess pieces or losing their minds at a simple missed cue. My favorite was Ricardo Ferretti, a wild Brazilian who coached Pumas, the team from Mexico’s national university. Ferretti would go stunningly insane at the slightest provocation. The way he spoke to players made my jaw drop. I once saw him unload on a kid nicknamed “Tiba” who had lost a ball three times in a row during a routine play. He’s still at it, by the way.
A few years later, I began covering actual games. Even though it is far from the best place to understand the tactical layout of a soccer game, I always tried to make my way down to the field. I liked to stand behind the goal, listening to what players said to teammates, to foes, or to the often-hapless referee. The freedom with which they motivated, threatened, and cursed one another fascinated me. It also made me see the sport differently. I understood the psychological aspect of the game, how defenders tried to unnerve attacking players and vice versa, how players push and push to manipulate the officials and coaches desperately try to intervene. The things I saw and heard during a World Cup qualifier between Mexico and Honduras in the mid-’90s make French hero Zinedine Zidane’s infamous run-in win Italy’s Marco Materazzi seem like child’s play.
But it wasn’t only the mental games and trash talk (which are irresistible in every sport). Being able to listen to players realign themselves on the field at a moment’s notice after receiving directions from the sidelines helped me comprehend the complexity of sporting strategy. From above, with the crowd yelling, jumping, and screaming all around, the nuances of tactics get lost. Down there, with even an average league game on the line, the real intensity of professional sports is almost palpable. You end up grasping that what the pros play is something very, very different from our casual weekend pickup games. For the true sports fan, silence is golden.
Not everyone sees it that way, though. The pandemic has emptied stadiums and arenas across the globe. For the first couple of months, with dread and uncertainty overtaking a dreadful spring, almost every league from almost every sport drew the curtain down. But now, in countries that have managed to contain the spread of the disease, sports have begun to reemerge. In Germany, the Bundesliga is back. Even if the stands are empty, the action hasn’t suffered one bit. The broadcasts of the games, though, are another matter. Perhaps dreading the silence, networks have added an ongoing soundtrack: the chants and oohs and aahs of (nonexistent) fans. The effect is disconcerting and eerie. This should stop, and sports should continue: with no fans and no sound other than the smack of the ball, the raw emotions of top-level competition, and the intimate elation of victory.
Believe me: Next time there are fans in the stands, we might feel inclined to ask them to remain quiet.