The world has felt a bit dystopian for a while, so much so that it doesn’t really feel dystopian anymore. “The new normal,” people are calling it. “We’re in uncertain times.”
The week of March 13, when California went into lockdown for the first time, brought so much change to my life in such a short period of time. Like everyone else, I’ve been adjusting since. March 10 was the last time I watched a live professional sports game –—more than 100 days ago.
In terms of my hobbies, the pandemic-induced absence of sports was most jarring to me. I’m a hockey fan — I know that’s a foreign idea in California, where I’ve lived for some years now. That last professional sports game I watched was between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Toronto won 2-1. My mom and I had watched the game together, tuning in on the radio during the drive home from school and setting up shop in front of the TV when we got home, homework and responsibilities be damned. I won’t pretend to know what she was thinking, but I tried to savor every pass, shot and goal I saw. During commercial breaks, I recorded every game that would be on TV later that night, even teams I hated. I’d eat an onion like an apple before willingly watching a Bruins game, but I left a place for it on my DVR anyways. I knew in my gut we probably wouldn’t be getting hockey (or any live sports) back for a while. This wasn’t a regular off-season with a scheduled end date. It was a pause, and an indefinite one.
On July 28, I finally got to watch a Leafs game again. I couldn’t tell you how much I missed it. Like the NBA, the NHL has sequestered its playoff teams in bubble cities to allow players to compete for the championship they spent the season working towards. It didn’t feel real watching it — there were no fans in the arenas, so the TV broadcast piped in artificial crowd noise. The coaching staff all wore masks behind the bench. A cleaning crew came in and disinfected the benches during every commercial break. On the morning of the first day of gameplay, the NHL’s official TikTok account posted a video set to “The Hanging Tree” — music from The Hunger Games, a franchise whose entire premise is putting a group of people in danger for the public’s entertainment.
Suddenly it’s impossible for things to not feel dystopian again.
I will say that the bubble city seems to be doing its job — zero positive tests have been reported in the past two weeks. That doesn’t stop me from feeling vaguely ill about the whole situation. In my day-to-day conversations where I’m not as eloquent and articulate as I try to be in my writing, I use the word “icky” to describe anything that doesn’t sit right with me. When I talked to my friends about the game I watched, I followed it up with a qualifier of “but the whole thing still feels icky to me.” I think, in hindsight, the ickiness I tried to articulate is guilt that I don’t want to call “guilt.”
Putting that name to it (and calling it what it is) makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong. Don’t we only feel guilt when we’re doing something we aren’t supposed to do? And who likes to point that out to themselves? I definitely don’t. So, in the moment, I glossed over it and turned back to the game.
As is the nature of guilt, the feeling didn’t go away. My first instinct was that I simply missed sports and I was happy to be able to watch my favorite form of entertainment again. Being a diehard sports fan means your team takes up your time, your thoughts, your ability to feel joy. If I’m honest, it felt like a huge chunk of my personality was missing for these past four-plus months. Every day I would go to class and crack a joke about how badly my team played the night before. Where’s my sense of humor if I don’t have the Leafs to make fun of?
The return of sports gave me back a sense of normalcy, false as that sense may be. For a few hours a day, I’d worry about seeding for playoffs and elimination games instead of rising COVID-19 numbers and another semester of online learning. That felt like a luxury, and one that I didn’t know if I deserved.
There’s a difference between essentials and entertainment — where did live sports fall on that spectrum? Probably closer to entertainment than I felt comfortable admitting to myself. As much as I love hockey, I never needed it. I just missed it.
I felt guilty thinking about the families of the athletes competing in the bubble cities. What about them? Do their lives get to feel normal, sending a loved one off to be trapped in a hotel complex to play competitive games after 5 months of doing nothing at home? We know the players and team staff are being tested frequently, but what about arenas’ facilities staff — the people behind the scenes putting the production together? They’re away from their homes and families too, potentially putting themselves in danger, all so we can have our sports back.
Could the thousands of reliable and efficient COVID tests that athletes are using every day have been made available to people without access to testing? On a larger scale, are sports, right now, serving as a distraction from protests and social justice movements? I know I use sports as an escape from my real-life woes, but do I deserve the privilege of being able to take a break? Do any of us?
At the end of the day I was never the one making the big decisions. I don’t get a say in whether professional sports make a mid-pandemic comeback or not. I’m only a member of the audience. I’ll consume the entertainment that’s presented to me, even if it does make me feel “icky” when I think about it. I’ll settle myself on my living room couch every evening and turn on the game anyway.
Contact Sariah Hossain at sariah.hossain19 ‘at’ gmail.com.