Do sports matter? Of course not.
High-level sports have kicked off again with the return to action of Germany’s Bundesliga. They’re playing in empty stadiums, and five substitutions are allowed per match, instead of the usual three (although only three chances to sub per regulation, and an extra chance during extra time). Substitutes are spread out behind the bench area, and everyone’s wearing masks when they aren’t on the pitch.
It’s a little weird to watch, with the echos of the players’ shouts replacing the roar of a packed stadium. It’s a bit like watching an MLS game between two middle-of-the-road clubs in the dog days of August with neither team having anything to play for – if that game were played inside a warehouse.
(Not that some teams around the world haven’t tried to adapt; a South Korean soccer club recently got in trouble for filling their stands with sex dolls. Although, frankly, I don’t get the fuss; they were actively supporting local manufacturing, thereby boosting the economy, and it’s not like the sex dolls were naked or being used at the same time for their primary function. Perspective, people).
And yet the artistry and rhythm of the best players is still there, live, not a recording, not a video simulation of the Coronavirus Cup.
The best teams look like they’ve not missed a day. Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, all with silky and effective attacks. Robert Lewandowski, Timo Werner, flawless finishing after working their way into the right position on the field. Mainz, eh, not so much; in their 5-0 loss to RB Leipzig, they looked like they could have used some of the energy drinks produced by Leipzig’s sponsor (yes, Red Bull is a sponsor of soccer teams, including RB Salzburg in Austria and New York Red Bulls in MLS).
And of course, without fans, all you see around the stadium are the advertisements. Sports are a business, after all. These aren’t the stories of the local team owned by the local native and gathering the local athletes to stir the pride of the community for love of glory. No, it’s all about the money. That’s why you see giant ownership groups like that of Red Bull, or the owners of Manchester City, who also own New York City FC in MLS and Melbourne City in the A-League. Players come and go, crossing borders. It’s a lot of bread and circuses, another form of opiate to suck money from wallets to Money Bins. We’re told sports matter, that the leagues need to hurry up and play to help us get back to normal. Damn the virus, full speed ahead. It matters if your team wins a championship, so give us the money to go get the best players to win for you, like The Magnificent Seven but with cleats and not spurs.
But distraction is not the only reason we love sports.
You can sense a goal before it happens, when a team suddenly switches, a dummy run triggers a breakaway, everyone converging on goal, that perfectly timed angled pass setting up a feather-light cross that drops in just that right spot for the striker to nod into the net. It’s that visceral thrill of watching talented people doing what they do best.
That thrill will be diminished, of course, the first time the Bundesliga has to shut down again because of confirmed cases of Coronavirus (that’s actually already happened in their second division).
But in the meantime, let the games begin.