124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2

The Loop

Why does the pandemic make it harder to care about sports?

September 28, 2020

Kevin C. Cox

The most fun I've had as a sports fan since June has been watching golf. That probably sounds like the dullest conclusion ever reached, since I'm writing on a site called Golf Digest and most of my sports writing is on the topic of golf. Plus, golf has been comparatively great since the resumption; not only has the PGA Tour pulled off a minor miracle in keeping COVID at bay, but the FedExCup race was fun, and the two majors have been ridiculously fascinating for different reasons. I even got to see the Bryson DeChambeau experiment in person, which was great even though it happened early in the pandemic when it felt like every breath might kill you and your entire family. When it comes to golf, I'm rapt, and why wouldn't I be?

The truth is, though, that before 2020 golf was only one part of a very balanced sports diet. My interest in football had ebbed over the last few years, but I watched a ton of baseball, basketball, and tennis, and I'd started to become mildly interested in European soccer too. My overall interest hadn't waned a bit, even as it ebbed and flowed between sports.

Now? Folks, it's a'waning. When German soccer came back before anything else, I decided I'd get into German soccer. I struggled to care. When Liverpool resumed the attempt to win the first league title in 30 years, I vowed to watch every match. I watched maybe two. When the Yankees started the season on fire, I thought they'd be a nightly ritual like always. I drifted away. I was more excited about the NBA playoffs than just about anything, but after the first round or so? I mostly checked out. When the U.S. Open began, I assumed I'd be glued to the television for two weeks the way I had been for decades. I watched a good amount, but not nearly as much as years past. I tried to indulge in my annual Tour de France love affair, but aside from a spectacular stage or two, even that held less appeal.

What is happening, and why does this feeling seem to be shared by so many people? It makes no sense. If anything, I should be watching more live sports. It's not like there's much else to do! I have nothing but time at night. And my memory of the months when we had absolutely nothing on TV—when all we could talk about was The Last Dance and the sports networks were loaded up with programming like the 1989 SEC conference diving championships—is still fresh. It was abysmal.

So, again, what gives? Why, on an average weeknight when I could be watching the Yankees or an eastern conference final game between the Heat and Celtics or a Stanley Cup finals game, am I opting instead for a Sopranos episode I've seen four times before, or playing online poker, or just blowing the hours on the Internet?

I could break out my most pretentious voice and say something like, "well, with the serious health and political issues dominating the news, it's hard to care about frivolous athletics." But I'll be honest with you: I'm not thinking that deeply. Sports have always been technically less important than elections, or war, or hunger, or any other social issue. But I've always cared about sports to an irrational degree anyway. A mere pandemic isn't enough to make me self-conscious about screaming at the athletes on my TV.

No, this is something else, something harder to describe. It's almost like the fact of the pandemic, of shutting down society, has introduced a kind of universal lethargy or near-apathy that extends to sports. I'm not smart enough to understand the psychology of why this is happening, but I know I'm not alone. A ton of friends have described the same experience, and when I put it out there on Twitter this weekend, most of the responses reflected exactly how I feel. Even in the rare case when someone watched more sports, he or she admitted to caring less. Here's a representative comment that I found pretty insightful:

My journey was the same as Cody's: Big excitement (to the point that I had even considered watching Korean baseball at 2 a.m. on a weekday) followed by the long letdown.

Of course, there could be simpler reasons for this sports ennui. Even with artificial crowd noise, the lack of fans might detract from the atmosphere. That would jive with my personal enjoyment of golf, because golf loses the least without fans, at least as a TV viewing experience. Maybe the rupture of the NBA and NHL seasons took away some of the usual momentum for fans, and maybe the shortened MLB season made it all feel like a novelty act. Maybe, as one Twitter follower wrote, the fact that the social element has been kneecapped—that we can't go to a bar and enjoy the games with friends—diminishes everything else. Maybe sports are not a distraction at all, but a persistent reminder of our ugly times. Maybe Adam nailed it:

Maybe it will all be back to normal when they finally figure out the vaccine.

Or maybe the world is just crushing our souls and sports is an unfortunate casualty. At night, when I think about turning on a Lakers-Nuggets game, there's a kind of instinctual aversion happening inside me that I can't understand. A tired feeling sweeps through, an energy vampire actively sapping my enthusiasm. Usually, I overcome it and enjoy the experience—I'm very glad, for instance, that I flipped back and forth between watching LeBron crush the Nuggets and the Dallas Stars win a 2OT game to prolong the Stanley Cup finals on Saturday night. It was fun! And the fact that I write about this stuff gives me more incentive to stay tuned.

And yet...the ennui persists. I don't have the exact answers for why this is happening, and god knows I don't have the solution. Like a lot of other things here in 2020, the most we can hope for is that we're stuck in a temporary nightmare, and that by and by we'll return to something like a state of normalcy. Until then, we're stuck in a no-win situation where our two choices are "abandon sports (except golf)" or "fake it until it's good again." For now, I'll take option B.