With the return of the National Football League and the Baltimore Ravens to Sundays, sports are back on TV in a major way. Waking up to College GameDay on ESPN Saturday and The NFL GameDay on the NFL Network Sunday, the first post-Labor-Day weekend promised a return to some sense of normalcy for someone who grew up with and loved TV sports as I have.
The rhythms of television are the rhythms of American life, and the seasons of sport are at the heart of that cultural marriage. Thanksgiving and football on TV. Spring and opening day baseball on TV. New Year’s and college bowl games on TV. You get the picture.
Nor is it limited to sports. The medium has become part of the fabric of American life right up to how we elect a president with TV debates, candidate ads and late-night election-night telecasts. Its rhythms have become imprinted on our psyches. When they are disrupted, some of us can get a little shaky without quite understanding why.
All of which is why I was hoping the return this weekend of TV football as I have known it since my childhood would draw me in enough to provide some escape or a bit of relief from the mental stress and emotional grind of COVID-19, the virus that has killed more than 190,000 Americans this year and shows no signs of letting up.
But once again, TV sports didn’t deliver anything more than a momentary distraction for me.
I say once again because I tried watching baseball. But the telecasts felt downright eerie at times with analysts appearing in little boxes from places beyond the ballpark. They could have been watching on a monitor on Mars. They felt no more intimately connected to the game than I was ― not surprising since they were watching in some cases from their living rooms just like me.
I hated the piped in crowd noise and cardboard cutouts instead of human beings in the seats. It reminded me of the artifice being used by Major League Baseball to even be playing during the pandemic and all the players who had tested positive for COVID-19 — with some of the results kept from the public.
I can’t watch an inning of baseball without thinking about players like Boston Red Sox ace Eduardo Rodriguez, one of the best pitchers in baseball, who is not playing this year. The reason: After “recovering” from COVID-19, he now has myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle attributed to the virus. Mr. Rodriguez is not alone. One-third of Big Ten athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 this summer and fall wound up with myocarditis, according to Wayne Sebastianelli, Penn State’s director of athletic medicine. No one can tell those athletes how that will play out in the rest of their lives.
I tried watching the NBA as well. The telecasts were a little better once the producers figured out that if they kept a tight shot on the court, viewers might momentarily forget the athletes were living and playing in a Disney bubble in Florida. A Disney bubble in Florida, talk about artifice.
I even tried golf, and for most of my life, I hated golf. I’m not that crazy about it now, but I have to say golf has adapted best to the TV realities of a COVID-19 world. I don’t miss the galleries all that much, and I love looking at all that beautiful green landscaping.
I have no major complaints about the CBS Sports announcers or producers of Sunday’s Ravens game against the Cleveland Browns. The telecast definitely had a preseason feel to it with the empty stands, but the play on the field and the work of play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle, analyst Charles Davis and sideline reporter Evan Washburn was solid enough by normal NFL television standards.
But I won’t watch another minute of college or professional football this fall outside of what my job requires. Doing so lends credence to the false perception the White House is trying to sell that the pandemic is behind us. It isn’t, and the more we embrace that lie, the more Americans will die.
We have been acting like a nation of adolescents for the past six months. We want our fun, but too many of us are not willing to do the work and make the adult sacrifices of wearing masks and social distancing needed before we can contain the virus enough to righteously enjoy our TV games again.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.