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Dispatches from the present




Among all of the major spectator sports in America, the National Football League season is comfortably the shortest, running for a seventeen-week period from September until either late December or early January, depending on the fluctuations of the calendar. After this comes the five-week “postseason” where (following a slightly expanded format this year) the fourteen teams who remain in contention are systematically reduced to eight, then four, then two, and then you have your champion. In a typical year, the Super Bowl is the most watched event on American television. In fact—according to Wikipedia—29 of the thirty most-watched broadcasts in American history have been Super Bowls. Every season, the weekly rhythm of games hammers along and eventually climaxes in this quasi-national holiday, then it’s all gone for another seven months. The sudden absence is always a poignant event when it happens.

The Super Bowl this year was played in Tampa Bay’s Raymond James Stadium in front of 25,000 fans and 30,000 cardboard cutouts of fans, a suitably uncanny backdrop to a season that mostly steamed ahead as normal amidst the pandemic. By the time of the finale, I had stopped having much of a stake in who won the championship, but still cared enough to register the feeling of drift after turning off the TV at the end. Obviously, there are worse things than having to go without a particular televised sport for a few months—even now, there are plenty of other options—but the mood comprised more than just that. My impression is that the compactness of the NFL season as well as the regimented nature of the game itself (and the sheer scale of its audience) work together to exacerbate a sense of melancholy that often attaches itself to the end of the more ritualistic parts of the calendar. Northrop Frye once observed that although the arrival of spring is just as natural as the arrival of winter, it isn’t anything like as rational—and I’ve been thinking about that idea lately in this context. What he meant was that the beginning of something logically implies an ending: if it starts, one day it stops. But the end of something doesn’t entail its reappearance. For this reason, even though the renewal of nature happens with perfect regularity every spring, he says, there’s always something miraculous about it in our experience. It’s as if deep down it were a vindication of faith rather than knowledge.

Although Frye doesn’t spell out the implication himself, the reverse side of this thought would seem to be that our experience of winter (or of the “dead” passages of the year more figuratively) is bound up with a kind of uncertainty about whether or not it’s ever going to end. Is he right about that? What seems true to me, at least—to shrink the point back to the world of sport—is that if you’re the sort of person who has an emotional investment in seasonal games, part of the joy of the new season beginning is the apprehension that it isn’t something assured or inevitable. Not because the restart is only a form of convention, although of course that’s true, but because on a more visceral level the return feels gratuitous somehow; the delight of restoration always subtly exceeds the foreknowledge. This would make complete sense on Frye’s model. If even the cycle of nature doesn’t seem perfectly secure to us, how much less so our imitations of it? And how much easier is it—when they depart—to feel the creeping premonition of finality?

Last spring, even friends of mine who usually barely register an interest in pro sports told me that the interruption of the regular calendar was part of what brought home the severity of the crisis to them. By now, all of the major leagues are—or have been—back up and running in approximate form, playing out the usual contests but in empty arenas and half-deserted stadiums. It’s nice to have them, although it only underscores the point that we’re all still stuck in this waiting-room version of normality, where even the distractions seem strange. I’ve long had the sense that one of the more serious reasons to recommend being a sports fan is that it gives you something to rely on as you get older. Every year, no matter how sterile or pessimistic life might seem otherwise, you have a kind of regeneration to look forward to. The NFL season (or whatever) starts up and it’s both a repetition and more than that; a way of marking time, enjoying change, without making the reality of change feel unmanageable. Whereas in the pandemic nothing really comes back. It’s as though the usual cycle of the year could be performed, more or less, without ever quite escaping midwinter. All of the rituals and thresholds are subsumed under the anticipation of recovery—the vast pending reintroduction of ordinary life. This in spite of the fact that the spring waiting for us, assuming it ever shows up, is going to be like nothing else before it.


Photo credit: elisfkc2 (CC / BY Flickr)