We can all stop scrawling tally marks on the prison wall: The final total was 67.
A mere 67 days after the NBA suspended its season due to the coronavirus pandemic, prompting all other major American sports to follow suit, Sunday provided some real, live sports on flat screens across the country.
It’s the biggest milestone until whenever the next milestone comes, whether that’s the resumption of the NBA season or news of an official start date for Major League Baseball. The sports world is sputtering back into gear in fits and starts.
Still, it was nice to have a familiar view from the couch Sunday. Rory McIlroy on the greens. NASCAR drivers turning left. The average sports fan may not watch either sport religiously, but it was enough for any of us to dare to hope.
I’m a lifelong golf fan and a NASCAR novice, but I decided to give them both a go. It’s the glorious return of live sports, after all. A full plate for me, please.
I don’t know which event had a more awkward title — “The Real Heroes 400” or “TaylorMade Driving Relief” — but both referenced the pandemic, the backdrop that made these more than merely a NASCAR race and a golf exhibition. It was more than lip service: The golf match raised more than $5.5 million for various COVID-19 causes.
“TaylorMade Driving Relief” was crisply produced for the most part, especially considering key members of the commentating team were spread out and working from home around the country.
There was little to complain about. We got to watch three of the world’s best golfers in McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, plus the kid with the Fu Manchu and the weird, corkscrew swing. Lapel microphones allowed us to eavesdrop on more than usual, including the occasional barb back and forth. Next week’s similar charity match pitting Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady ought to be more fertile ground for that type of dialogue.
More than that, I reveled in the sounds of iron striking ball, followed several seconds later by ball thudding onto turf. It was difficult for me to switch over to NASCAR, but just think about that — it felt incredible just to have the option to flip back and forth. When have we sports lovers had that luxury since March?
We all can appreciate the classic comeback story of NASCAR driver Ryan Newman. Exactly three months removed from a horrific crash at the Daytona 500 that honestly could have cost him his life, Newman was able to drive again Sunday. He said “a combination of large and small miracles” was responsible for him returning to the track.
It’s stories like this that remind us why we’ve felt so lost without sports. It’s why the Michael Jordan docuseries “The Last Dance,” which concluded Sunday, has drawn millions of viewers. It’s part of the reason why countless others in the U.S. are tuning into Korean baseball and German Bundesliga soccer to get their fix, whether or not they cared about those leagues prior to the pandemic.
And TV executives aren’t the only ones who should be credited for creative ideas. The football fan who stitched together complete NFL games from Week 2 of the 1988 season for a “Red Zone” channel mockup deserves a tip of our caps.
Maybe you sensed it, but there’s been a “but” coming for a while here.
Golf doesn’t rely on big crowd reactions for ambiance, except perhaps the stadium hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. We don’t really notice the golf claps. NASCAR races are loud enough to take the crowd out of it, so Sunday’s race wasn’t that strange for casual fans that tuned in.
But I don’t think we’ve fully contemplated how bizarre it will be when basketball, hockey, baseball and even the NFL return to action without fans later this year.
There’s been talk of pumping in artificial crowd noise for football broadcasts, which may only prove to be more discomforting than silent stands. If we want so desperately for the four major leagues to resume, we must admit that sports for the rest of 2020 will be TV-only experiences, so we don’t need to fool ourselves with fake boos and cheers.
As an aside, it’s obviously true that the importance of sports is a distant second to public health and the safety of the American people. But keep in mind that it’s more than entertainment for many of us. Remember the thousands and thousands of people who’ve lost income because they worked in security or concessions at Capital One Arena, or they’re a jockey who couldn’t race in the Preakness Stakes this weekend, or any number of other jobs.
In a surprise interview on NBC during the golf match, President Trump told Mike Tirico that sports are coming back “fast.” We can only hope that this can be achieved safely. But enacting safety measures practically assures that spectators will be banned for several months. And when they are allowed to return, some may be spooked out of returning to the stands for fear of catching the virus.
Our view from the couch will be the same. Another dose of familiarity, like we got Sunday. But considering how uncertain this future still is, celebration isn’t the right reaction. Not yet.
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