I’ve made sports my profession -- sorta accidentally, but I’m not complaining -- and I spend the majority of my waking hours watching sports, writing about sports, thinking about sports, reading about sports. I organize my life around sports, from family vacations to weekend afternoons to visits with old friends I haven’t seen in weeks/months/years. I’m able to conjure up memories of my life by tying them to the sporting calendar; I got married during baseball season and the NBA Finals, celebrate my birthday during the baseball playoffs and find it impossible to say the word “March” without “Madness” at the end of it. I’m a sports fan, and a pretty serious one.
But I have no illusions: I have no belief that any of this is important.
This weekend, I attended the New York Knicks’ season opener at Madison Square Garden and the Brooklyn Nets’ opener at Barclays Center. These were the first two professional sporting events to be held in New York after Hurricane Sandy terrorized my beloved home city. At each event -- particularly the former one -- I was bombarded with talk of how we should all “remember what’s important today” and hope that the game “can help bring a little joy during difficult times.” This is great and all, and I do hope that anyone suffering because of the hurricane/superstorm/frankenstorm who might have watched either game felt a little better because they were at a sporting event rather than, you know, thinking about how they’re going to reconstruct their entire lives after such all-encompassing devastation. But I couldn’t help but think that these were things the teams and the leagues were telling themselves, rather than something that actually mattered, or was even real.
That’s to say: People who work in sports like to consider sports somehow cleansing in times like this. But I think they’re just saying that so they feel better about working in a field that doesn’t really matter or change the world. We could have all been out on Friday or Saturday night distributing food and clothing throughout Red Hook and Staten Island, or at the very least packing up some of our own items to bring to the various drop-off locations around the city. But we weren’t. We were watching a basketball game. That we were there and able to do so, rather than trying to reconstruct a world recently devastated, said all we needed to about how “helpful” we were.
I mean this as less of an indictment, less guilt-tripping, than it perhaps is coming off as. I just mean that because sports don’t matter, and yet we all spend so much time obsessing over them anyway, we all have a tendency to inflate it into something it isn’t. And we’re especially bad about it when faced with circumstances like Sandy, in which what does matter is so violently thrust in front of us. The worst example of this remains the 2001 World Series, a thrilling back-and-forth series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees that Major League Baseball and the sporting media continue to try to insist was somehow heroic. (Just because there were some cops within camera shot doesn’t mean you were actually doing anything helpful.)
To hear it told today, that Series helped heal a wounded city. Lemme tell you: I was here, and that Series didn’t heal anything. We were mourning before, we were mourning after and, in many ways, we all are still mourning now. It was a distraction, sure, but a distraction is merely that: Something apart from what’s really happening, a shiny object, keys dangling in front of an infant’s face to briefly make the baby forget that he’s crying. There was some value in having a collective experience, a reminder that everyone else was going through the same thing we were, but it didn’t help, not in any sort of lasting way. It just took us away for a few hours a night.
The sports world is always congratulating itself on taking us away for a few hours, as if it is somehow a special sort of distraction. But it isn’t. Sports serve the same purpose, in a macro sense, as soap operas, reality television, Wreck-It Ralph, board games, Angry Birds, juggling, stand-up comedy, whittling while one works, jumping rope and pornography. Now, I prefer sports to any of those diversions, and if you’re reading this site, you probably do too. But sport isn’t any different. It’s just particularly skilled at distracting us from life’s woes, a simple equation (Win=Happy/Lose=Sad) in a world of complexity and confusion. When something like Sandy comes along, broadcasters always say things like, “This helps remind us what’s really important.” Wait, you didn’t know that already? Sports serve as a distraction during events like Sandy because that’s what sports are all the time.
I watched the Knicks and Nets win this weekend and enjoyed both games: The Knicks are a lot better than anyone thought they’d be, and the Nets, well, the Nets have a new mascot that looks like something Sam Lowry would have dreamed in Brazil. It was fun to watch some basketball. But it was as fun as it always is. It didn’t help the city, it didn’t show that the city is indestructible, it didn’t provide any more solace during these hard times than at any other time, it didn’t do any of the things that the telecasts and the participants told us it was doing. It was just sports: consistent, often exhilarating, entertainment. Isn’t that enough?
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Seriously, just text “Redcross” to 90999 to contribute $10 to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. It is literally the least you could do. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.