This is not the end of the world so much as a suspension of everyday life. People are getting sick, some small yet terrifying percentage are dying, and anybody who can afford to is staying inside. Museums, theaters, and restaurants are closed. Kids are home from school. The sound that leaks in through my windows in the morning is not typical city noise—pedestrians, traffic, workers from the Mediterranean joint across the street tossing heavy bags of kitchen trash into a dumpster—but small nattering birds, who are always around but seem louder because everything else has gone quiet. I’m wiping my ass with cocktail napkins. Other than that I guess I’m okay; I haven’t taken a thorough inventory yet.
Like pretty much everything else, sports are on hiatus, and once we get past this period of idiot solemnity where the folks who parse shooting efficiency numbers and compare athletes to prestige TV characters for a living tell us, with the eager authority of somebody who just googled a book they haven’t read, that of course sports are not important, we’re going to discover that they actually are, because a lot of us have made a rather large intellectual and emotional investment in sports and cannot easily transfer that energy and expertise over to whatever indoor activities we can responsibly pursue while the plague passes. I spend considerably less time watching and thinking about the NBA than, say, Zach Lowe and I still feel like I’m walking around using half my brain because there’s no basketball to talk about. My evening routine is a familiar pop song suddenly gone instrumental.
The good news, what’s tiding us over as we all ponder taking up model airplane construction, is that sports will come back soon enough and function more or less the same way they always have. So maybe we lose this NBA season, or salvage it with some suboptimal playoff format. So maybe next season’s schedule is slightly screwed up too. That’s not a big deal. We’ve had lockout-shortened years. The greatest player in the history of the sport once parachuted in on Game 66. If the salary cap dips, if the owners lose revenue, no one should care. Except for players at the very beginning of their careers or at the league’s fringes, everyone with a stake in this venture is already rich as hell. And after this pall lifts, their cashflow will resume promptly. As soon as they’re allowed to, fans will once again pack the arenas and tune in from their couches. Sports are a resilient, lucrative business. They can survive an extended intermission.
The same isn’t true for a depressing number of American households. The unemployment rate is soaring and projected to settle around 20 percent in a country where 40 percent of people are so broke that they would struggle to come up with the money for an unanticipated $400 expense. The stock market will probably recover over time—it habitually does, because it’s the first thing our government labors to stabilize in a crisis and rebuild in its aftermath—but that’s cold comfort for anybody looking to retire in the near future. The 401ks they’ve been growing for decades are in the toilet. 44 million Americans don’t have healthcare and another 38 million have threadbare insurance plans with high deductibles and terrible coverage. The social safety net is porous and frail. Democrats are constitutionally slow and Republicans are ideologically opposed to giving people the help they need. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has proposed cutting relief checks at the end of April, but the water is up to a bunch of folks’ eyeballs right now.
For huge swathes of society, standing still for any amount of time, let alone several months, will be gravely injurious or even deadly. We’re going to come through the other side of this pandemic but we’re going to do so in thinner numbers, less employed and more deeply in debt, having forfeited our homes and wiped out our savings, battered in ways we will struggle or simply be unable to recover from. Eventually, the kids will go back to school and the cities will fill up with noise and many of us will be suffering worse than before.
Sports will return, swiftly and fundamentally unchanged, and that will be a comfort. Technically all we need to survive is a roof, someone who loves us, and a box of pasta, but that is no way to live. There is deep, prismatic meaning in a playoff basketball game; nobody should apologize for caring about that, or yearning for it in the midst of a much grander problem. What we really mean when we say that sports don’t matter is that they exist in a kind of parallel reality. The NBA is a business that’s theoretically as susceptible to market forces as your local bookstore, but it’s such a successful enterprise that a bad year means an owner losing tens of millions of dollars against a multi-billion dollar asset, or a free agent signing a contract for $11 million per season instead of $13 million due to a shrinking salary cap. Nobody loses anything except money, of which they already have more than enough. Your local bookstore is probably a bad year away from losing its lease. Its clerks might be a bad month away from starting to skip lunch.
It’s commendable that quite quickly after the season was suspended, NBA players across the league made sizable donations to fund the lost wages of hourly arena workers who are going to be out of a job until basketball resumes. Owners have put together paid time off packages too, and hopefully both the players’ generosity and public sentiment pressure them to provide additional aid to their employees as their layoff likely stretches through spring and into the summer months. This is the way things work in America: the middle and working classes toil in a state of permanent precariousness and when an emergency arrives, they often have to depend on the shame and/or largesse of wealthy people who could endure a dozen emergencies and still keep hold of the deeds on three homes and several thousand acres in Wyoming.
When this current crisis recedes and the folks depending through no fault of their own on charity return to scraping by on wages earned taking tickets and hawking Bud Lights, the games staged will serve as a broad cultural indicator that things are back to normal. We will be elated to have LeBron and Giannis and company back in our lives and the same pale blue oxford shirts who with practiced gravity claim that sports don’t matter will go back to thinking about them almost exclusively. That veneer of normalcy—sports resuming, museums reopening, markets rallying, because these are things that have room to fail—will contain the scars of what doesn’t come back. The American project will persist in all its rickety cruelty. And millions of us will be suffering worse than before.