We Need Sports Right Now, but Not for Escapism

More than an entertaining distraction, sports give us something our current politics refuses to: a shared reality.
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In tragic times, you often hear about the “need” for sports—as a distraction, a diversion, or a communal gathering. This is almost always overstated, and it is frequently reductive to the point of being insensitive. Boston might have “needed” the diversion of David Ortiz saying, “this is our f---ing city” and then leading the Red Sox to a World Series win a few months after the Boston Marathon bombing, but the parade did not bring back the dead.

We do not need sports now, in the wake of the domestic-terrorism incident at the Capitol. Future history students will not say “Wow, that’s crazy, but did the Magic still host the Cavaliers?” But we need what sports give us and our current politics do not: the widespread acceptance of what is real.

Scoreboards are not subject to negotiation. Coaches and players fume at officials, and some carp forever that they were robbed by a bad call, but they do not claim they actually won when they lost. When the Raiders lost the famous Tuck Rule game to the Patriots, they screamed and moaned, but they did not fly to Pittsburgh the next week to face the Steelers. We can argue for hours about whether Cincinnati or Texas A&M belonged in this year’s College Football Playoff, but we cannot argue that they played in it.

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Every once in a while, somebody (usually the NCAA or the International Olympic Committee) will vacate a championship or reverse a result, and even when that is the right decision, it feels empty or ham-handed. No sprinter wants to receive a gold medal in the mail eight years after losing to somebody on steroids. The joy is in crossing the finish line first.

This brings us to what might be the most intellectually maddening part of what happened in Washington, D.C., this week—and, really, what has happened there for the last four years: The truth has not mattered. We are told that what happened did not happen, and that what we know to be false is actually true. This might not be the worst part of it. You might be more outraged by political positions, by legislation, by a privileged person’s lecture about the fairness of the American experience, and that is understandable. But at least those are arguments with multiple sides. What we have in this country is somebody saying a touchdown is worth 11 points and the other team’s end zone is actually the 20-yard line.

The bookends to this era are brazen lies in public squares, not of equal import but of similar inanity. The first was about crowd size at an inauguration. We were told an obvious lie was not a lie but the use of “alternative facts,” the first declaration that the core strategy was to make things up and claim they are true.

Then, this week, came the other bookend: the lie about the 2020 presidential election, which one man won, and another man claims he did. Even Auburn message-board posters would have laughed if Tommy Tuberville had claimed his Tigers beat LSU when they didn’t. But now that Tuberville is the newly elected senator from Alabama, and his job includes certifying the results of an election for president of the United States, the professional expectations for him are much lower than when he coached in the Southeastern Conference. He is no longer held to a basic standard of truth.

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Donald Trump’s extreme reluctance to condemn the people who committed violence Wednesday is part of a pact. When he says “We love you. You’re very special,” he is following through on their unspoken pact: He will never criticize them, and they will never question him. You see these kinds of relationships between a coach and team’s fans sometimes, but the terms of those relationships only last until the scores are in. An NFL coach cannot go 3–13 and say the media lied about his record.

The lies of the last four years are not just about the record—there have been plenty of those, but every administration has those. These lies are different. The entire administration is built around the belief that the truth does not matter, because the truth might upset the person in charge. Every lie flows from there. Up is down, small is big, you don’t see a wall there but there is a wall there, we know it looks like rain but it’s not raining, you claim you’re getting wet but you’re not getting wet, and finally and predictably: The numbers say we lost but we won.

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People in sports lie all the time, often about silly stuff: who is injured, who is starting, why somebody got benched, how much they love the city that they can’t wait to leave via free agency, whether they expect to contend this year. Sports fans understand that intellectually, though spotting the lie in real time, or even after the fact, can be tricky.

Because sports are built around the truth, there is a certain glee that comes with catching somebody—especially a successful person—in a lie. Fourteen years later, people still remember Nick Saban’s exact words in his final days with the Dolphins: “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.” But when the numbers say Saban’s Crimson Tide team wins, his team wins.

The violence at the Capitol was frightening, and lack of security and double standard of the police response to this particular form of domestic terrorism is infuriating. But it was all built on the lie that one man won an election he clearly lost. That lie was the underpinning of the whole day, and if you remove it, the rest of the day never happens.

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The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a longtime public servant, an author, a gentleman who enjoyed a cocktail or five, and a Democrat whom conservative commentator George Will called America’s “most intellectual senator.” Moynihan lived an extraordinarily accomplished and full life, but even a life like his gets winnowed down to a few sentences in public memory. A generation from now, Moynihan might well be known to average citizens for two things: the Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan that opened last week, and this quote:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

That is perfect. It should be the foundation of any intelligent conversation. Sports fans don’t need to be told this. Being a sports fan means having opinions, but those opinions only have value because of a basic respect for the facts. We watch the games. We keep stats. We know what is real. We are swimming in sports facts. Try telling a fellow NBA fan Kobe Bryant never won a championship and see how far that gets you.

There are hundreds of important and painful stories to come out of the pandemic, but somewhere down on the list—a sidebar to a sidebar—is that, without the constant diversions of endless entertainment options, people had time to think. Sports provide so much escapism in modern life that sometimes it feels like all we are doing is escaping. But sports ground us, too, and even when they seem meaningless, they give us what we should get elsewhere: a dose of truth. How sad that America needs its escapes to provide its reality, too.