• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Sports Are To Become Insufferable

July 2020

Sports are to become insufferable.

I admit, this statement—against which most American ears will bristle—is coming from someone in whose opinion sport enjoys a relatively low status to begin with; it’s not a past time of which I’m exuberantly fond. It’s not, as it is for most men of my age, a consuming affinity in which I invest all of my uncommitted time, a passion to which, every Sunday afternoon and Monday evening, and every Thursday night and Saturday morning, I’m completely enslaved. Indeed, if I’m honest, I prefer books to screens, conversations to touchdowns. At my root, competition neither compels nor moves me, at least not in the way that great literature does. This is no judgment of the enjoyments by which so many of my fellow countrymen are besotted, but simply a declaration of the peculiarity of my own taste. There’s ample room, after all, in the vastness of this land for both athletes and aesthetes, gladiators and readers, actions and thoughts.

Yet, that said, I can’t help but feel an acute sense of eagerness and anticipation for what will be our nation’s long-awaited return of sports. A cultural experience to behold, in a time bereft of culture, their advent has been announced for the end of this month. Until then, I can’t help but be curious about the adjustments they’ll be made to implement, the changes here and there, the revisions large and small, of which we, as an audience newly obsessed with its hygiene, will be ever-so scrutinizing. I’m curious to know of the medical precautions by which these leagues will be encumbered, the logistical nightmares with which they’ll be made to contend, and the uncertainty from which they’ll not soon escape in what’s become, in the span of recent world history, the most unusual and vexing of times.

I want to know how these sports will be received, if they’ll be sustainable, and whether or not we’re seeing before us the first inklings of a paradigmatic shift in the ways that they’re consumed, embraced, and played.

Never, so long as I can recall the twenty-eight years of my age, a time during which so much and little has happened, has sport been absent for so long a duration of time. Being that it is, in most normal circumstances, the locus upon which our culture is fixated, the center-point around which our daily enthusiasm and thinking revolves, it’s shocking to have experienced the prolonged nature of its suspension. Frankly, I can’t remember a time so absolutely devoid of sports, despite never having followed them as closely as I perhaps should.

That said, for nearly five months, from the middle of March until the end of July, all major sporting events will have been, for all intents and purposes, cancelled. At a time when we might’ve been watching the NBA or NHL playoffs and finals, a plethora of MLB opening days, and the first moments of the Olympics spectacle of which that eerily quiet city of Tokyo was to be the host, we’ve seen nothing but the wearisome repetitions of our Netflix-laden screens.

During this hiatus, as if to provoke but never satisfy our hunger for athletic competition, we’ve seen a few sports televised in unfamiliar ways. We witnessed acoustically-intimate UFC competitions, whose every landed blow the streaming audience could palpably sense and hear. It was a strange and rebarbative sight, a reminder that a cheering, live audience has something of a buffering effect. It civilizes, in an odd way, that which occurs in the ring.

To replace the brutal with the artificial, we were also treated to a sequence of “pro” wrestling events, wildly dramatic events of which the inimitable WWE company is the author. These, with all their ridiculous success, are phantasmagoric scenes of rippling egos and pyrotechnic choreography, pseudonyms and knee-high boots of which most “true” sport fans are understandably contemptuous. Aside from those two sports, pugilistic in one form or another, we were exposed to a few international, namely Asian, baseball games. We recognized the rules of the game to which the players adhered, the runs and the throws to which they devoted their bursting efforts, but it was played at a distance with which we weren’t entirely comfortable. It was not baseball as we know it; not the sport as we Americans love it.

In the coming weeks, those aforementioned sports to which we gave nothing more than our partial attention, that pabulum of games by which, with an awkward hand, we were fed but never nourished, will be coming to their end. Replacing them will be the much better-known and loved entities—the NBA, NHL, MLB, and the early outings of the NFL—for which we’ve so desperately longed. But I fear, in the midst of all the political turmoil and civil unrest into which this frenzied country has been tossed, in the ferment of a world in which we’re still spinning, these leagues and the players, owners, coaches, and managers of which they’re composed, are to become positively insufferable.

For one, the NBA is planning to inscribe along its courts’ periphery the words, “Black Lives Matter”. In reference to the proper noun, or the organization with which this phrase has come to be associated, such a scribbling on the floor is far from unobjectionable. In explaining to one’s interlocutor his rationale as to why this may be, and to preempt the reflexive accusations of racism by which he might be accosted, he inevitably steps into an unpleasant semantic mire. While his preference might be to avoid it, it’s not a hole from which, once he steps too close, he can easily remove himself. That said, unwittingly disputatious and intellectually open as he is, he’ll attempt, with varying degrees of success, to differentiate the phrase Black Lives Matter (that is, the BLM organization, at whose vanguard stands a couple of neo-Marxist agitators) from Black lives matter (the natural sentiment of which all should be possessed). He’s likely to fail in the process, forever buried in the burned-over earth.

In addition to that, there are twenty-nine approved “Social Justice” statements with which the league’s players will be permitted to adorn their bodies. On the backs of their jerseys, a ready canvas across which, in normal times, an alphabet of fabulously wealthy last names will be stitched, such phrases as “Black Lives Matter”; “Say Their Names”; “I Can’t Breathe”; “See Us”; “Respect Us”; “How Many More”; “Group Economics”; and “Education Reform” will be emblazoned.

For an audience of millions enraptured by their every move, the statements “See Us” and “Respect Us” might be just a bit self-gratifying. Doubtless, if they’re not seen to be completely offensive, they’ll be thought to be redundant, and the intended message of which they’re meant to be provocative might be lost. As for “Group Economics”, I’m not entirely sure what to make of that. Indeed, I hazard that no player, certainly no owner, would succeed in filling me in. Theirs, assuredly, is an economics in which I’d like to be grouped. I don’t the suppose the reverse would be true. It seems like a phrase innocent of a definition, one seeking in empathy what it lacks in meaning. Reflexively, I dislike it, especially when conveyed by a billion-dollar business to whose laughably expensive games only the most frugal and devout lower and middle-class families can dream of having access.

In championing “Education Reform”—an admirable endeavor, I’ll be the first to admit—I very highly doubt that the players are referring to those same reforms about which, in both his forthcoming and his many previous books, the great classical economist Thomas Sowell so convincingly writes. Unlike any other thinker with whom I’ve come to be conversant, Sowell presents his opinion on this topic with the unique genius of his stroke. He does so with an empirical flourish and a dauntless conviction, a combination of evidence and force by which any attempted refutation is consistently rendered limp. Is it an increased availability of charter schools or alternative learning options for which these players, along with Sowell, are agitating? Is it a reduction in the menacingly broad powers with which the public teachers’ unions have been entrusted of which those players, taking the lead from Sowell, are desirous? If so, I align myself with them, but I unfortunately think that it’s not.

You see, then, how vapidity fills the gap intended for virtue. All too often it does. Society is ready for these conversations to be broached, investigated, and felt—not facilely to be read atop the numbers on a professional athlete’s back.

Just as the NBA is to become insufferable, so too is the NFL. The league has long been awaiting its “reckoning” as it pertains to social and racial concerns and now, in the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, et al., that time seems finally to have come.

Racism, to those observers whose noses are keener than mind to its scent, has been a problem to which the NFL has been sorely inattentive. At best, they’ll say, it’s an issue on which the league’s ownership and management has dallied for far too long a time. In the past, it’s shown casual, ephemeral interest in the problem, the great issue by which our world’s been recently overwhelmed. At worst, they’ll allege, the NFL is guilty of having played a role in its perpetuation. They’ll say that the NFL has winked at this systemic and an inextricable evil, a deep-rooted sin of which this league run by Whites is complicit, and by which it has so foully profited.

Their argument is that for the past five years or so, perhaps since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013, the league has dragged its feet in addressing this ghost by which our society is haunted, the specter of universal racism. In the face of recent examples of police brutality, ethnically-motivated killings, social injustice, and the incorrigible victimization of blacks, the league offered in response no sign, no moral position, from which its predominantly black players might find encouragement. Its response, they’ll contend, was always costive and unsympathetic, unforthcoming and insufficient. Never did it lead in its vocal acknowledgement of this issue by which society was, and still is, confronted, an issue about which the majority of its players are intimately concerned.

Now, it seems, thanks to the undying perseverance of these writers and players, the league has awakened to this fact. Like a slumbering giant, interested more in the inertia to which it’s become accustomed, than the toil for which it was built, it has aroused itself to this issue. It’s now standing up on its feet, conscious and alive, ready to address the problem of which that clamorous few has made it so acutely knowledgeable.

Most significantly, in an effort to acknowledge the peculiarity of Black culture and the importance of which it’s so amply deserving, the NFL has decided to play not one, but two national anthems before the start of its games. At least for the first week of its upcoming season, this is the startling brilliance of league’s plan. Prior to the traditional playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner”, during which, one can expect, innumerable players will kneel, the league is going to play a song entitled, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”.

The former, as the devout reader of my work will know, is but a drinking song borrowed from the pagan artistry of the Brits. It’s an ode appropriated by a war-wearied poet by the last name of Key to which, despite a list of superior alternatives, we’ve inelegantly affixed ourselves. The latter is known in some sectors as the “Black” national anthem, a song around which one people, certainly not all people, can joyously rally. Grand though it is, it’s meant to be an exclusive work, a tune to which only one voice is welcome.

If you’re not already anxious about the repercussions with which the playing of these two national anthems will be attended—the one explicitly “Black”, the other necessarily “White”—I’ll make it so that you are. Forgive me for being so blunt, but the situation upon which we’re embarking will be an ugly one, and we must be prepared to see it for what it is. Undoubtedly, the consequence of the playing of these two anthems, that which is “Black” preceded by that which is “White”, will be not greater unity, but deeper faction. We’ll see not heightened brotherhood and mutual understanding and respect, but much more painful division and unrest.

Every single player, regardless of his color, will stand, without wavering, for the “Black” anthem. About this, there’s no doubt. In fact, he’ll do so with a tension in his spine and a stiffness in his neck at whose sight even the most polished of infantryman standing for roll-call would blush. He’ll never have known a posture so indomitably erect as that worn by the virtuous and muscle-bound football player. None will even consider the damnable effrontery, the grave profanation, of flinching, sneezing, of twitching an eye while “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” is played. To do so would be cause for excommunication, not only from the beloved sport off of which he so lavishly profits, but from the society to which he’ll soon be made to say “good-bye”.

A majority of players, if I had to guess, will then proceed to kneel for the “White” anthem. It’ll do so in a wave, as if all their lower joints were deprived of their structural stability in one fell swoop. Its message will be clear; the “Star-Spangled Banner”, and all the systemically racist institutions of which that ghoulish song has come to be symbolic, will be, once and for all, undeserving of their respect. It will no longer demand reverence, and it will no longer frown upon impudence. It’ll be nothing better than empty notes ignored by the lot. This time, the display will be unequivocal (it was ambiguous when Kaepernick first did it) and it will be heart-breaking. For having kneeled, the players will be applauded amongst their peers and celebrated by journalists for the strength of their resolution and the collective display of their defiance.

Meanwhile, those who put in a good word for the old flag and utter with cautious exuberance and tight-sealed lips the words of Francis Scott Key, will be castigated as prejudiced, reactionary, and unsympathetic rubes. They’ll be called out for not having been equally as animated in their observance of the “Black” anthem, a song with which they haven’t any familiarity, to which they feel themselves now suddenly subjected. The bifurcation will become ever more stark: those for the “Black” anthem, and those for the “White”. And, given the racial upheaval through which our country’s now living, it’s not hard to imagine where this competition will end.

And so, I repeat: sports are to become insufferable. I look forward to ignoring them—an endeavor for which, thanks to my competing pastimes, I’ll require little practice. But that won’t stop me from lamenting the division that’ll ensue.

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