Months of lockdown, isolation, and uncertainty over our future caused America to yearn for its favorite national pastime of professional sports. But instead of the widespread, socially distanced celebrations we envisioned as baseball, basketball, and hockey returned to our television screens, the nation was greeted with political division, depressingly empty stadiums, and competitive sport that seems to appeal to no one.
As the Major League Baseball spring camps closed down at the start of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, disappointed fans were buoyed only by the thought that, even without being able to use their Opening Day tickets, they'd see a return to baseball at some point in the summer.
Labor disputes, pay squabbling, and dirt kicking between owners and the players' union slowed the start of baseball, however, and eventually, players began to drop out because of COVID-19 concerns. Optimism for happiness waned, and the 60 game season offered up as a last resort seemed less and less appealing.
Even so, as the nation began to except its new sports normal and gear up for whatever twisted MLB season 2020 was able to give them, crisis enveloped the nation in the form of cultural unrest and widespread protests over racial injustice. At that moment, America needed sports more than ever before.
But baseball's Opening Day and the return of the NBA didn't open the door to the great distraction a quarantined and frustrated nation so desperately needed and wanted. The temptation for sports franchises and stars to side with the cause of virtuosity and cultural acceptance was too great, and they succumbed.
Instead of triumphant returns to sports and water cooler chatter about potential playoff bids, fans were greeted by entire teams of players, coaches, and even officials kneeling before the American flag on the field of play. In basketball, teams were so tribal about their choice not to honor the national flag that the decision to stand by a single player, Jonathan Isaac, demanded a press conference in order for him to explain why he stood for his own flag in his own country.
Now, the television ratings are telling the story of disappointment painted across the face of sports fans who just can't stomach a mutilated season now marred with political dogma and mandatory wokeness. The nearly six million fans who tuned in to the first day of Major League Baseball to watch players kneel during the anthem dwindled to only three million the very next night.
The NBA, also embroiled in controversy over their constant kowtowing to the Chinese Communist Party, saw a similar dip in viewers from 5.6 million on the first night back to just three million the very next night.
To be fair since I compared MLB vs NBA return night 1, here is night 2— Ryan Glasspiegel (@sportsrapport) August 1, 2020
MLB (last Friday, ESPN)
Mets-Braves (4p) - 922K
Brewers-Cubs(7p) - 1.0M
Angels-As (10p) - 797K
NBA (last night ESPN)
Celtics-Bucks (6:30p) - 1.3M
Mavs-Rockets (9p)- 1.7M
MLB really fell off after opening day. In general, both leagues aren't getting the audience one might expect from a nation that's been deprived of entertainment for months https://t.co/GazeoR9SNB— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) August 2, 2020
Ratings have fallen precipitously since that time, as fans struggle to adjust to a season that will be forever recorded with asterisks and favorite players that could opt-out at any moment; many have.
Gone now are the rousing next day discussions about exciting games, blown calls, and trade potential. In their place are mournful complaints about how sad the stands of home stadiums look with no fans, how silly it is to watch players avoid making contact with each other, and wondering what political grandstanding they might be forced to endure just to catch a game with friends and family.
Returns to competitive play by historically struggling teams aren't met with the cheers and support they should be. Even seasoned sportswriters are struggling with how to tell the story of a season that was billed as a welcome distraction and has evolved into a soul-crushing slog.
#orioles win 5-1. Hadn’t swept a series since Aug. 27-29, 2018 against the Blue Jays and hadn’t swept the Rays in a three-game series since Sept. 11-13, 2012 in Baltimore. Back when fans would bring brooms into ballparks. Back when the gates were open to them.— Roch Kubatko (@masnRoch) August 2, 2020
American sports represent more than an escape from a frustrating and stressful world; they represent freedom in a great nation. They are played in the United States at the highest level, with the toughest competition, and the best facilities because they were created for American fans. They are beloved because they represent greatness, endurance, and, most importantly, a life free of restriction. They are a place where we can shout, scream, hug, cheer, jeer, and cry.
Empty stadiums and long term plans for COVID-19 restrictions are not compatible with professional sports. Simulated fan noise and jumbotrons for no one have proven to be an unimpressive short-term solution; in the long run, they are a disaster.
But more importantly, the flag is waved and the anthem played at the start of every game to remind everyone of the sacrifice it's taken to achieve that vast freedom every fan who should be in that stadium is experiencing. It's easy enough to say that kneeling for the national anthem is just a gesture, just an expression of speech; it is. But it's a gesture that signals to fans that to them, that flag is just a symbol, that respect for the anthem is routine, and that playing a great game in a grand stadium is a right that was given to them, not fought for.
Athletes should stand for the flag, not because they feel forced to, but out of respect for greatness that has been fought for and achieved to give them the right to do so. Political discontent shouldn't be taken out on the flag that waves for everyone, not just for them.
If freedom and respect do not return to professional sports fans soon, it will mark the beginning of the end.