When sports aren't a distraction at all

So this is where we’re at: after months of waiting, we can finally watch live games — only to find that they carry a whistling-past-the-graveyard quality. This is unrelated to the empty stands, the elbow-bumps, the facemasks on sidelines. Those things are aesthetic, and have become part of our usual sportstalk: a lack of NBA fans has apparently resulted in better shooting; an Atlanta Braves home run struck a cutout of an opposing player’s dog. What’s less fun to discuss are byproducts of our epidemiological failure: say, that the Yankees played the Baltimore Orioles because the teams’ originally-scheduled opponents both had to be quarantined. Or the fact that the Brooklyn Nets have so many unfamiliar faces because several of their key players have tested positive. Or that a Major League Soccer altercation between Toronto and D.C. United wasn’t caused by a penalty or a dirty play, but anger over testing protocols.

Far from being an eclipsing distraction from the coronavirus, sports are now reflecting how very far we are from defeating it. So we got the games we’d wanted so badly in the spring — but they’re not as easy to focus on as we might have hoped. Maybe that’s how it should be when a young pitcher’s career might now plausibly be over. Or when St. Louis Cardinals players keep testing positive. There was a time when sports were laughingly referred to as “life or death” — because, of course, we took them too seriously. But the phrase now feels a little uncomfortable. It’s too close to a truth we desperately want to forget.