Future Tense

Sport’s Post-Pandemic Reckoning

How will athletic fandom change after the virus recedes?

A soccer player heads a ball as another player jumps behind him, in an empty stadium.
Juan Escobar of Cruz Azul and Francisco Córdova of America play without fans on March 15 in Mexico City’s Aztec Stadium. Hector Vivas/Getty Images

It felt like watching the last soccer match on earth, a rainy Sunday night affair in Mexico City’s imposing Aztec Stadium, beamed into my living room by Univision. Cruz Azul vs. America is the capital’s classic derby, a match that conjures up so many epic memories of my Mexican childhood, but one I had not watched in years. It turned out to be a fitting farewell. It was the ides of March, the game was played behind closed doors, and the Mexican league had already announced that all games would be suspended after this one.

It’s creepy to watch a professional match being played with no crowd in a large stadium. It’s like spying on a private scrimmage. You hear the players calling out to one another, the thud of the ball as it’s being struck. But I couldn’t appreciate the novelty of the experience because I was too consumed with the reality that this was it, the end of the line. I don’t even remember the score.

That night—which came at the end of a weekend on which I had already been deprived of my regular dosage of Premier League action on NBC—I couldn’t help but think of the famous quote attributed to British Foreign Minister Ed Grey in August 1914 as he reluctantly accepted the inevitability of war with Germany: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Just substitute “stadium floodlights” for “lamps.”

A bit melodramatic, I know. So was Grey for that matter—the lights across Europe did come back on. But elements of the prewar era were gone, forever, including a belief in the inevitability of progress. And I wonder if the same may prove true about pre-pandemic sports when they return.

Our enforced timeout is forcing us to reassess the meaning of sport, and in particular sport fandom—where it stands in the spectrum of essential-to-frivolous activities in life. The answer varies by person, of course. I grieve for the hiatus of something that bonds people together, across national boundaries and political divides; something that helps define our identity. But I have heard others express relief that sport is no longer providing the b-roll to so much of our lives and shared spaces. Apparently some people actually prefer small talk about the weather, or a virus.

A pandemic is a humbling time for the world’s most powerful form of live entertainment. Even die-hard fans are having to reevaluate their priorities and the relative importance to their lives of various institutions—your local grocery store might suddenly seem a lot more essential to you than your hometown NBA or NFL team.

But I am not ready to write off sport as frivolous. Sport fandom connects us to each other and to our communities like few other things. And for millions of us around the world, sports play the role harvest seasons and religious calendars often did (and still do, in some cases) for many people throughout history—providing the rhythm and pacing to our year: The Super Bowl begets March Madness, which leads to opening day; May sees the wrapping up of Europe’s leagues in time for NBA playoffs and Euros in June, followed by Wimbledon as an appetizer for the inspiration of the Olympic Games set to the NBC John Williams score, which hands off to the NFL’s kickoff of autumn. To everything there is a season, as the Bible says.

Until there isn’t. For now, it’s an indefinite stay-at-home gray, no shared punctuations to our days, weeks, months. Stream away our other forms of entertainment—game for a marathon of The Office?—to your heart’s content. But the live action that organizes our calendars and requires us to take rooting sides is all gone.

So sport is important, but is it really essential? Is it appropriate to care about sport, and want to prioritize its return, when society is mobilizing to face a shared threat, and when we mourn the suffering of others? We have debated this in different ways at different times throughout our history, often in wartime. During World War II, a month after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote a letter to the commissioner of baseball urging him to play on: “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”

For a moment in March, it seemed there was a similar determination across much of the sporting world to carry on in that spirit (admittedly for commercial/broadcast reasons as well). Leagues from the NBA to the English Premier League planned on playing on, without fans, to entertain the millions of fans under house arrest.

But then came the realization that “appropriateness” was not the sole criterion in the play-or-don’t-play deliberations. For unlike debates about whether to play during World War II or in the aftermath of 9/11 or John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a threshold issue in this instance was the health and safety of the athletes. The hubris of the call to carry on in these circumstances became apparent in one 24-hour spell when a Utah Jazz player and Arsenal’s manager across the Atlantic both tested positive. That meant lights out. The appropriateness criterion was superseded by the athlete safety one, which hadn’t been an issue in the United States since the Stanley Cup Finals had to be called off in 1919 because too many players were struck by one of the latter waves of the Spanish flu.

And so now we wait, our calendars a blur, our year’s rhythm jarringly interrupted. No opening day. The 2020 Euros and 2020 Olympics will take place in the summer of 2021. The 2020 Wimbledon will never be. The late-stage European soccer leagues and NBA are frozen in a timeout. Our fall sports are a hopeful buoy in the horizon, if we can get there.

Sport might be in for a reckoning after the pandemic, much like imperial Europe was after the Great War. There’s even a possibility, you hear from many pundits, for rebirth and reform to come out of this, a reset to purer, less commercialized basics. Some fans might break with the habit and question sports’ importance in their lives.

Perhaps. But there’s something about being forced to sit at home to avoid contagion that brings out the worrier in me. I fret about what might not come back on the other side of this. I worry about the fate of sport’s globalization and inclusive expansion. In recent years, when we’ve experienced a pullback in much of the world from the idea of cross-border thinking in favor of a resurgence of crude nativism and nationalism, sport has seemed an outlier, a rare cultural domain where globalization was still going strong.

Not everything was rosy, to be sure. Sport can be excessively commercialized, and the quest for ever greater profits for athletes, teams, and leagues is often the driver of globalization. Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the benign influence and leverage that sport, regardless of commercial motive, can and does exert in the world.

It’s been a huge positive that a generation of young fans in a city like Liverpool, coming of age in the time of Brexit and populist nationalism, cheer on, and idolize, their club’s Egyptian striker, Mo Salah. It’s a huge positive that FIFA, for all its obvious flaws as the governing body of the world’s top sport, had been using its leverage in a time of prosperity to pressure Latin American federations to set up and sustain women’s leagues, and has been pressuring Iran to allow women spectators to attend international matches in that country. It’s to be applauded that U.S. owners of Italian Serie A clubs have taken the lead in denouncing racism in that league.

It’s fair to criticize a lot of this as too little too late, or to question the motives behind sport’s expansionism, but it is also true that if sport enters a long-term recession and crisis of confidence, today’s enlightened internationalism will likely be abandoned, deemed an indulgent luxury from a different era. Things can get worse. Instead of debating why women’s leagues don’t enjoy parity, we may soon mourn their absence.

I have been guilty of assuming there was no putting the genie of sports globalization back in the bottle, no turning back sport’s expansionism and powerful drive to shrink the world. Now I appreciate the vulnerability of sport’s status in our lives, of all the progress it’s made to bring us closer to one another around our shared passions. I’d like to think that once this forced timeout comes to an end, sport will pick up where it left off, with a renewed sense of commitment to a more enlightened sense of internationalism than what politics has to offer, and a renewed appreciation from fans.

This is now my hope; it used to be my expectation. Let’s see when play resumes.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.