Matthew Andrews, whose work looks at the links between sports and American history and culture, talks with Jonathan Weiler about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on sports.
Andrews is a teaching associate professor in the history department and has an interest in the links between sports and American history and culture. He is particularly interested in the ways sports both reflect and affect American politics, race and gender identities, and social reform movements.
Jonathan Weiler: Welcome back to another episode of “COVID Conversations,” a production of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My name is Jonathan Weiler. I’m a professor of Global Studies at UNC Chapel Hill.
Matthew Andrews: And my name is Matthew Andrews. I am a professor in the Department of History at UNC Chapel Hill.
JW: This is our fourth episode of “COVID Conversations” and for the first three episodes we’ve been fortunate enough to have on as guests some of our many awesome colleagues at UNC who have talked to us about their research as it relates to the current Coronavirus epidemic. And today for a change of pace, Matt and I are just gonna [sic] talk amongst ourselves about the impact of the absence of sports on society right now. Matt and I have a separate podcast that we’ve done from time to time over the years, called “Agony of Defeat” and we intend to resume that podcast soon. But so we obviously have a particular interest in the intersection of sports and politics and society. And the fact that there are no organized sports happening now in the United States is really, it’s an unprecedented event.
MA: Yeah, unprecedented is the word Jonathan.
JW: Yeah, it’s extraordinary. And obviously as sports fans, Matt and I have our own particular feelings about that [laughter]. So we are going to talk both about that kind of larger social impact, and as we like to do, we’re going to take a look back historically at other times in our history when sports were absent for some periods of time for various reasons, whether it was an influenza epidemic, or a World War, or a boycott, or a strike, or a terrorist attack. And so-
JW: -we will, we’ll get into all of that today.
MA: And then I guess we’ll look into the future a little bit too, right? Try to pull out the crystal ball and make some predictions about when we think sports might be coming back or, and we don’t have good news, I don’t think, you and I [laughter]. We are not terribly optimistic.
JW: We’ll talk about some of the plans that have bandied about and yes, I don’t think either of us is all that excited about those plans.
MA: Well, Jonathan, you know, on our regular podcast, our other podcast I should say, the “Agony of Defeat”, we like to start with something called ‘the rant of the week’ in which one of us gets a chance to sort of let loose about something that’s been bothering us, usually in the world of sports, but you said that you wanted to do something this week.
JW: Yes, I do have a rant this week and it’s a rant directed myself, Matt.
MA: Oh, alright, good.
JW: Because I, having listened to our most recent “COVID Conversations” podcast with Marc Hetherington from the Political Science department. And Marc was absolutely awesome-
JW: –talking about a new political survey that he and colleagues have fielded nationally that looks at the relationship between people’s political attitudes, and their views of COVID-19, and various government efforts to mitigate the crisis. And it was just so great to talk to Marc about that work. But before that, Matt, you and I briefly talked about just our feelings about the last day of classes, ‘LDOC’, and the end of this strangest of all semesters. And in about a 90 second period, I use the word challenging, no fewer than four times.
MA: [laughter] Okay.
JW: And when we read our student’s essays [laughter], and they keep using the same words over and over again, we write in the margins ‘vary word choice’, [laughter] because that’s just a basic feature of good writing and good communication. And by the time I heard myself say, challenging for the fourth time, I wanted to scream. So, I’m just giving myself a demerit here-
MA: [laughter] Alright.
JW: -for my overuse of the word. And it was challenging [laughter]-
MA: [laughter] It was, it was very challenging.
JW: -but there are other words that I could have used-
MA: Don’t be-
JW: -in place of challenge.
MA: Don’t be too hard on yourself. I think the Gettysburg Address uses the word liberty like 18 times, so.
JW: [laughter] Okay, so what you’re telling me is actually I’m, I-
JW: -Lincoln-esque, exactly.
MA: That’s what I’m going with.
JW: Okay, so that that’s my rant of the podcast.
MA: All right, don’t be too too hard on yourself. So I’m looking forward to checking in with you about sports. And we were talking a little while ago, we’re doing this podcast on May 1st. I think we should probably say the date just in case things dramatically change in the next couple of weeks. I don’t think so, but it’s possible. And we were talking about how, in some ways it was when the world of sports, when it all came crashing down, when sports were put on hiatus, that we started to understand, perhaps, better than we had previously, the scope of this pandemic. Now, I was out of the country over spring break. I was in London doing a little research. I was actually researching the Olympic Games there, hoping to lead a study abroad there next summer and visit some of the sites. So I missed some of the details you were telling me about. Could you take us back to that day, I guess, to what was it, the second week of March, when all this began to unfold?
JW: That’s right. So (…) to take a, yeah, a brief look back at that week. Tuesday, March 10th, which was, as you said, that was over spring break at UNC and a lot of other places, was the first day of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament.
JW: And UNC, because of its unusually bad season, was playing a game that night; they played Notre Dame. And then the next night, March 11th, was a Wednesday. And actually some friends and I went out to celebrate one of our crew’s birthday at the wine bar in Chapel Hill. And that night, March 11th, was a turning point, in many ways for the national crisis. There were a few things that happened that night. First, that was the night that Donald Trump, President Trump, went on television to announce a travel ban from Europe. We won’t dwell on the details of that except to say that that was a problematic address, but also an obvious signal that times were changing dramatically and rapidly.
JW: And that night, UNC played what turned out to be its last basketball game of the season, it lost. It was going to be its last game of the season regardless, but during that game, we heard an announcement that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, of the NBA, a star player, had tested positive for Coronavirus.
JW: And the game that he was, that his team was scheduled to play that night was canceled. And by the end of that evening, the ACC was talking about continuing the rest of the tournament. Those games on Tuesday night and Wednesday night were played in front of full crowds. Well actually the arenas were pretty empty by Wednesday, but fans were allowed in to the Greensboro Coliseum on that Tuesday and Wednesday. By the end of the night that Wednesday night, the ACC had said, well, we will resume the tournament tomorrow but without any fans in attendance.
JW: And by the next day, the NBA had announced, because of this positive test, that they were suspending their season, which at the time, I think was absolutely shocking to people.
JW: And the ACC, which was going to resume the next day as I said, without fans in attendance, announced actually we cannot continue the tournament. Duke University, among other schools, told the ACC, you know what, we are not sending our student athletes to play in that tournament.
MA: That’s right. And then if I remember, again, following this from abroad, this was when the NCAA said that well, we we’re going to have the tournament, but there won’t be fans. Which to me just seemed like a bizarre halfway measure that made absolutely no sense when you consider what the game of basketball is and how sweat and spit are being exchanged during the game. And then everyone sort of quickly came to their senses and just called everything off.
JW: Right. That’s right. And so I really do think that the sort of shock of watching very high-profile professional sports leagues, and the signature college tournament being canceled, was, I think that jolted people into understanding that we are now in a totally different place than we were even 24 hours before.
MA: Well, and I would imagine, you know, Rudy Gobert is fine, and I know that Donovan Mitchell tested positive and is fine, but just the notion of these-
JW: Donovan Mitchell is a teammate of Rudy Gobert’s.
MA: -of Rudy Gobert on the Utah Jazz. You know, just this notion of big, strong, healthy, athletic individuals, testing positive, being ill, you know. It makes you think of, thank goodness it didn’t turn into this, but it makes you think of Brian Piccolo or Lou Gehrig or any of these moments that there’s something (…)
JW: Those are athletes who were cut down in the prime of their careers by unexpected illness.
MA: Yeah. And there’s something about big, strong men getting sick and being felled, you know or being silenced like these NBA players were at this time, that I think just sort of brought all of this home and made it hit a little closer to home for a lot of people.
JW: Yeah, and so it quickly followed after the NBA suspended its season, after the NCAA canceled, not just its men’s NCAA tournament, but it’s women’s tournament and really all the other spring tournaments and events that it was planning to have continue. We have not had sports in now seven weeks.
MA: Absolutely nothing. And I-
JW: Absolutely nothing.
MA: -I have been asked by many people, what does this remind you of as a historian of sports? What is this like this? This is like nothing ever before. We have never encountered anything like this. This is unprecedented. There have been moments where certain sports have gone away, maybe for a week, maybe for a couple of weeks, maybe just for for a weekend. And we’re going to talk about some of these, but just to have an absolute absence of sports is stunning.
JW: It is and one of the, among the sort of interesting manifestations of that, Matt, is just what places like ESPN sports talk radio are trying to do to fill the void.
MA: [laughter] Well they’re yeah, they’re-
JW: We’re seeing lots of replays of old games, which I, as a particularly avid sports fan, sort of tried initially and I would say relatively quickly lost interest in.
MA: Yeah, it wasn’t a substitute. I think I watched five minutes of the NBA Horse competition. It was absolutely atrocious.
JW: Yeah, that was, that was actually painful to watch.
MA: People, they are doing their best. But no, I think to maybe, you know, get to a big idea here why this matters so much. I mean, I think if you’re listening to this, and you’re not a big sports fan, you can say, oh good, you know, a few less sports in our life. We could, we could use fewer sports in our life. But what I’m struck about, you know, thinking in the past is how important sports have been at times like this. How important sports have been in times of great national stress, great national anxiety, great national tragedy. You know, Americans come to, right or wrong, Americans come together in sporting arenas. Right or wrong, where else in American life are you going to find 50-, 80-, 100,000 people gathered for one event. It’s at sporting events. It’s the only time that it happens. And we don’t have that outlet right now.
JW: And leaders call upon sports leagues, and I know we’ll get into this more, to provide that solace at these times of great national stress as you described it. I think it’s not surprising that President Trump, a few weeks ago convened the commissioners of the major professional men’s sports leagues-
JW: -essentially to say, I want you all to-
MA: Get going. Sure.
JW: Now, whether that’s going to happen is, of course, a completely different question.
JW: But it has certainly been true that politicians themselves have leaned on that at these times of crisis for 100 years now.
MA: Well and this is one of the arguments both for sports and against sports, is that sports are a distraction. They give us, they allow us to forget about what’s going on in the world, all of the problems in the world. Some people say that’s a good thing and some people say that’s the problem with sports, we need to be thinking about these problems, but that distraction is not there.
JW: So, speaking, Matt, of, you know, times in our history when we’ve seen the truncation or cancellation of major sporting events, seasons. I know one period we wanted to talk about was the period of the Spanish Influenza-
JW: -in 1917 and 1918, which was, you know, is really the only precedent most historians of medicine and epidemiologists and others, sort of look back to in trying to give us a sense of what we’re living through now. So Matt, maybe say a little bit about what happened in the sports world in 1917 and 1918 as the Spanish Flu started ravaging American society.
MA: Sure well, it’s the only parallel I think, you know, it’s, it’s the closest parallel. And one of the things that happened is well, it took a long time in the United States, for the government and for city officials to realize the severity of what was going on and then publicize the severity of what was going on. The United States had just come out of World War I and there was this sense that people were coming back and it was a time of joyousness, a time for Americans to gather and celebrate, and then this flu came. And the flu spread in sporting arenas, it’s one of the places where it spread. The World Series was in Boston, Boston and Chicago in 1918, and tens of thousands of Red Sox fans gathered for World Series games in Boston. And then about three or four days later, the epidemic surged in Boston. And historians who have looked at this, they think, it’s just like what happened in those soccer games in northern Italy, in Bergamo, what people were calling a biological bomb. You know, you get 40,000 people screaming and yelling and spitting, as one does at a sporting event, and you spread the flu. And so, baseball the was shortened, the baseball season ended up being shortened that year. College football that season was shortened, most teams only played five games. I think there was a, there were co-national champions that year, two teams that had only played five games. What I think is interesting is the Stanley Cup, the Stanley Cup Finals, they were canceled after five games. The Stanley Cup final in 1918 was between the Montreal Canadians and the Seattle Metropolitans. And game five went into overtime and the players were so exhausted, in hindsight now, so many of them, they realize, had the flu. No one could actually score in overtime, so the game was called a draw. And then game six, they called game six off. It actually says on the Stanley Cup Series not completed in in 1918. So sports, they were truncated I guess is is the word, Jonathan, for the post World War I Spanish influenza era, not canceled like we saw, like we see now.
JW: And while it’s true that baseball in particular was already a high profile endeavor in 1918, I don’t think we could compare the sporting culture of 1918 and its kind of integration into American pop culture more broadly, then, to 100 years later.
MA: The NFL and the NBA literally did not exist in 1919. Yeah, the only the three sports that really mattered were baseball, boxing, and horse racing. And college football, I suppose had some hold. No, but so nothing like the the absoluteness that we see today.
JW: So another episode that I think is worth mentioning is just the absence of the Olympic Games during World War II. So-
MA: Right. And World War I, right?
JW: -and World War I, right. So the 1916 games were canceled. The 1936 games of course, notoriously, the Summer Olympics took place in Nazi Germany and Berlin-
MA: And that’s where the 1916 games were supposed to be. They were supposed to be in Berlin. And so then they were in Berlin during Hitler’s reign in ‘36.
JW: And so those turned out to be the last Olympic Games for 12 years-
MA: That’s right, yeah.
JW: -because there were no Olympic Games in 1940 and 1944. So a question for you about that, Matt. Can you say anything about just how international Olympic officials dealt with those absences? Was there any push at all to try to do some sort of makeshift version of the Olympics or were the conditions of the world at the time just absolutely incompatible with anything like a global sporting event?
MA: Well, sure. Like (…) just as in the United States, sports were not as popular then as they are now, at least you didn’t have this the sort of mass popularity. The Olympic Games in some ways weren’t quite, and I’m putting this in quotes now, ‘The Olympic Games’ yet. It was really after World War II and it’s during the Cold War that I think the Olympic Games assume their sort of mega status. But in 1940, the games were scheduled for Tokyo, Japan. This was gonna [sic] be a big moment for the Olympic movement. This was gonna [sic] be a new continent, or this was gonna [sic] be a new global area to symbolize the growth of the games. And it’s the Japanese military, it’s the Japanese military and the Japanese government that canceled the games in 1940. Because they were preparing for well, it turns out, war against the United States. And at that time, they were busy invading Asia. And so they didn’t have time to mess around with these games. So the IOC very quickly scrambled. You know, there’s this notion the games must go on, as Avery Brundage said later, the President of the IOC in 1972. But that idea existed back in 1940, so the IOC quickly scrambled. This is interesting, the Winter Games were gonna [sic] go back to Germany, back to Nazi Germany, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where they had been in the winter of 1936. This, despite the fact that Adolf Hitler’s intentions in Europe, they were perfectly clear by 1940. And then the Summer Games were going to go to Helsinki, Finland. So the IOC scrambled, right, the IOC did not want to cancel their games. And then, of course, Europe devolves into total war in 1939 and the games are canceled. They’re canceled again in 1944. And they, like you said, they resume in 1948 in London. London, a city that in many ways symbolized World War II, you know, a city that had been bombed by the Germans during the war, but was not utterly destroyed, like Warsaw or something along those lines.
JW: So one thing that did continue during World War II was Major League Baseball and the owners, after Pearl Harbor, the 1941 season ends in October. Pearl Harbor, of course, takes place in December. And the owners approach the President, as I understand it, and essentially ask should we cease operations while we’re-
MA: That’s right.
JW: –in this World War and the president writes this green light letter to Major League Baseball essentially saying, actually, we really need you now. So can you say a little bit more about that?
MA: Yeah, sure. So it’s the Commissioner of Major League Baseball who works for the owners, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who sends a letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and says, what should we do, like spring training is about ready to start. We will do what you want us to do. And this is actually in some ways it’s a response to what Major League Baseball had not done during World War I. Major League Baseball insisted on continuing during World War I. In fact, one of the leaders of Major League Baseball suggested that all major league players ought to be exempt from the draft, the point being that baseball players are so culturally significant. And Major League Baseball got in a lot of trouble for making that suggestion. So Landis, the Commissioner of Baseball in 1942 now doesn’t want to make the same mistake. And you’re right, it’s the green light letter. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt says, no, baseball is important, right? And once again, in times of great national stress when Americans are coming together, working in factories, when people were serving overseas, we need a respite. We need a distraction and baseball will provide exactly that. Baseball is important so I’m giving you the green, and he says it’s only my opinion, but I think baseball oughta [sic] go on.
JW: It’s and it seems like when FDR says it’s only my opinion, [laughter] It’s not really an opinion [laughter].
MA: [laughter] yeah, I think that’s right. No and you know baseball’s picked clean during the war. A lot of players they go and they serve overseas. But you know baseball-
JW: Some of the legends of the sport, right? Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, to name only two, missed three years of their career-
MA: Three years of their career. And of course, Ted Williams –
MA: -I was gonna [sic] say, Ted Williams went to flight school during World War II right here at UNC Chapel Hill. UNC Chapel Hill was a Navy flight school. Ted Williams played baseball here. Some people, this is you know just trivia, but some people say that the best baseball team in the entire country during World War II, it was the Chapel Hill Cloudbusters. This team right here in Chapel Hill, that had Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio and Ted Williams, among others.
JW: Right, and Ted Williams became a fighter pilot.
MA: That’s right, actually fighting in Korea a few years later, missed another full season because of war.
JW: Right, so baseball during World War II was a, it was a motley assortment of players.
JW: Very much diminished, talent-wise from what fans were used to. But also, it ended up being a kind of, in its own way, a legendary period in the sports history.
MA: Yeah, I think that’s right. It was part of the war effort; teams raise money for the war effort. Again, so you know, here’s we’re sports can actually serve a social purpose and Major League teams, they sent bats and balls and equipment over to the soldiers overseas. You said it was sort of a motley assortment of players. There was a 14-year-old who played Major League Baseball during World War II. Pete Gray and Bert Shepard, a one armed and one legged player, played Major League Baseball. You know, it speaks to, it’s a wonderful moment and an important moment in the history of disability in sport. The one thing, and I just can’t help myself I’ve just got to say this one thing I like to point out in my baseball and American history courses. During World War II, while 14-year-olds and one armed and one legged players are being considered for baseball, and I’m not saying that they should be, -er that they shouldn’t be considered, Major League Baseball is not considering African American players for their rosters during the war.
JW: And it’s not like there weren’t incredible players available [laughter].
MA: [laughter] It turns out there were some pretty darn good ones out there. Yeah, yeah.
JW: So moving into our lifetimes, it might surprise some of our students to know we were not actually alive during World War II. So moving into our lifetimes, we have experienced hiatuses in sports we’ve cared about since we’ve been alive. For example, in 1980, the Summer Olympics were scheduled, they were held in Moscow. But because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in December of 1979, President Carter decided that the United States Olympic team would not participate in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In 1994, Major League Baseball had a strike in August. Major League Baseball had had a series of strikes, starting in the early 1970s and extending into the 1990s. And in 1994, the Major League Baseball players went on strike in August, which led to the cancellation of the remainder of the season, including the World Series, and that’s the first time there was no World Series since 1904.
MA: Yeah, right. So there have not been World Series. I mean, you kind of think of organized baseball starting in 1903. There have been two years when there hasn’t been a World Series right; 1903, because of an because of a disagreement between American and National League officials, 1994 because of the players’ strike, and now maybe it’s going to be 2020 because of this.
JW: Right, and because we have no idea if or when the season will begin.
MA: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.
MA: Jonathan, I’m gonna [sic] throw one more in there as you were talking about that 1981, I mean, nothing was canceled, but I’m thinking of when President Reagan was shot. That was the day, if I remember this correctly, that was the night of the NCAA title game. And I’m sure a lot of people out there you know, from UNC Chapel Hill will remember this, between Dean Smith’s Tar Heels and Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. And as the story goes, and I really can’t believe this is how it worked, but as the story goes, the two coaches met in a broom closet before the game and they decided to go ahead with the game. I mean, was it really all so kind of willy-nilly back then that the two coaches had the call? Maybe it was, but they decided that it was important to play the game, you know, even with the President of the United States in surgery or just coming out of surgery. Once again, this idea that the games must go on. And that phrase, of course, comes from Avery Brundage and the ‘72 Olympics, when 11 Israeli athletes are murdered by members of Black September. And the question is, should the games be postponed? Should they be canceled? But no, the games must go on, sports must continue.
JW: So, that brings us to 9/11 of 2001 and the terrorist attacks in New York, and Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, the abortive one in Pennsylvania. And that caused a week long pause in American sports, specifically in football and Major League Baseball. And after a week, those leagues resumed, and those were sort of extraordinary times. The emotion of the resumption of play, and I remember this more clearly in baseball than in football because this was in the midst of a pennant race. It was getting near the end of the 2001 Major League Baseball season. Of course, the World Trade Centers are located in New York City and so it added this kind of gravity to the resumption of baseball games in New York City. The Yankees and the Mets that I think were particularly just loaded and felt like something much bigger than sports at that particular moment.
MA: Well, and think about that first game back in the New York area, I believe it was 10 days later, September 21st, where the Braves they traveled to play the Mets. And there was still smoke, you know, smoldering from the rubble just a few miles away. And the Mets players and then as the Yankee players did, and then the football coaches later, they were wearing NYPD and Fire Department hats, you know in honor of the people who had entered those buildings and been killed when they collapsed. And you know, it’s just a sports story but Mike Piazza hits a dramatic home run at the end of this game to give the Mets eventually the victory. And look, I was not there, but I vividly remember watching it on television, and you’ve never felt so much emotion just pouring out at a sporting event. It’s after 10 days of sorrow and grief, sports finally gave people in New York something to cheer about and it just released. And to go back to you know, this sort of thesis of what we’re talking about here, that’s what sports does. Sports arenas, they provide moments for those emotional releases. I think about the way in Boston, Boston fans sang the song “New York, New York”, you know, Red Sox fans in honor of what had happened in New York, football stadiums. It was, I was struck by the difference, but baseball arenas seemed to be places where people were remembering and mourning. Football stadium seemed to be sites of impending militarism, which was an important feeling for a lot of people, thunderous flyover jets and marching soldiers, you know, revenge, this is what’s coming Al-Qaeda’s way. But in both of those instances, they were really important rallying spaces where people could process what had happened.
JW: Matt, as a quick aside, as you’re describing some of these differences between football and baseball, I can’t help but think of one of the great comic bits of all time, which is George Carlin, describing the differences between the game of baseball and the game of football. And I would just encourage people [laughter] to look that up on YouTube for an extraordinary comic 10 minutes or so.
MA: Extra innings versus sudden death [laughter].
JW: Right, right.
MA: [laughter] Yeah.
JW: Players come home, versus they go to the end zone.
MA: End zone [laughter] yeah, exactly, yeah. And those, I did see a difference in those places. But again, to the same overall point, where else are you going to get this many people coming together and thinking collectively? You know, thinking in terms of themselves as members of New York City, the state of New York, as American citizens, it’s in sporting arenas. That’s where it happened. We can’t, absolutely can’t have that moving forward, right. We just can’t, sporting arenas are the last places, they’re these these petri dishes, where the virus will be spread. And so we as Americans, we are denied these opportunities.
JW: Well, that term that you used a few minutes ago is really sticking with me: a biological bomb. And I guess that’s a, an opportunity to pivot to just talk about future plans. And I think one of the reasons Matt, to sort of betray right up front my feelings about proposals for resuming sports. They all involve or they all assume there won’t be any fans in attendance. And just-
JW: -just the thought of that, for me personally, so diminishes my own excitement at the idea that sports would resume and I never would have thought about that before because I couldn’t have imagined watching a-
JW: -sporting event, first of all, I’ve been to many in my life and I love going. And just thinking about a Major League Baseball game or a college basketball game being played in an empty arena, just seems so weird.
MA: I guess it’s happened in a few sporting events of football, soccer, in Europe, you know, but a particular club whose fans have been caught with racist chants or whatever, they’ve been punished by not being able to go to a game. And so I guess it’s happened. I actually haven’t watched any of these games. But I’m with you, the idea of watching a sporting event, I was reading about a basketball league in, somewhere in Asia and one of the players-
JW: I think it was Taiwan.
MA: Taiwan, yeah. And one of the players, it was a former Duke player, I can’t remember his name now, talked about going up for a dunk and like dunking the ball and then thumping his chest and realized: why am I thumping my chest? There’s nobody here, get back on defense. This idea of watching sports without the crowd noise, I know they’re actually talking about you know having, not a laugh track, but a crowd track pumping in crowd noise. I don’t know if it will be at the arena or if it will just be for us watching at home on television.
JW: Well Matt, along those lines. I was also reading an article about the basketball league in Taiwan, I think it’s called the Taiwan Super League, and which is playing without crowds. They’re allowing TV cameras in because they’re broadcasting the games on television, and some essential staff. They’re doing temperature checks. If you have over 99.5 temperature, you’re not allowed in the arena. They’re not high fiving, they’re not shaking hands. But they were interviewing one of the players, one of the star players, an American, who said that he, it almost was it wasn’t worth it for him. That he realized how much of his game was predicated on feeding off the energy of the crowd and in an empty arena-
MA: That’s interesting.
JW: -it just didn’t, he, it was so hard for him to muster anything like the energy that he usually had to play at that level.
MA: Well, I think then if that’s the case, there are a couple sports that would translate better than others moving forward. I don’t think you necessarily need spectators for golf. In fact, oftentimes they say that the spectators get in the way. Certainly, you know, down here in stock car country, you don’t need spectators, you don’t need the crowd noise at a stock car race. You can’t hear anything when you go to stock car race.
JW: And in fact, we’re going to have a NASCAR race here at the end of May.
MA: That’s right.
JW: The Coca Cola 600, which I believe is run in Charlotte. The NASCAR officials lobbied Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina to please allow that event to be run without spectators, clearly to be televised. And he has in fact given the go ahead for that to happen.
MA: And I think the PGA has, is making tentative plans about starting slow and I think golf is probably going to come back. But it is difficult to imagine, well, baseball maybe I can imagine it but a sport, sports like basketball and football, I just have a really hard time, not just imagining it because of the lack of crowd engagement, but just because of the constant contact and collision of of the bodies. It just doesn’t make any sense.
JW: Football in particular, but basketball too. Football in particular seems like it would just be impossible to pull off.
MA: Well the NBA is talking about these so called ‘bubble sites’. If there’s one thing the NBA has, I think over the other leagues, they are the most inventive of the sports associations. I think they’re the most creative and the most flexible. You know, flexibility is not a term I would apply to NFL owners, but I would a little more to the NBA owners. And so they’re thinking of different proposals, a 14-tournament, an 18-tournament. They’re talking about ‘bubble sites’ where all of the players go and they live in the same hotel and then I suppose they’re checking temperatures 100 times a day just to make sure that nobody’s getting sick. They’re talking about Las Vegas, which I, sounds like a bad idea to me. They’re talking about Disney World, actually, Disney and ESPN and ABC, eager to get basketball back on there. Housing everyone in the empty Disney hotels, and there are sports arenas there, and just basically turning it into a sound studio and having sports.
JW: And just to clarify, and the idea would be that they would not be with their families, right? They would, they would essentially be themselves just quarantined on these sites for as long as they were competing. Now in the case of the NBA, that would probably be a few weeks. But I know there are some similar proposals for Major League Baseball, which could involve them being away from their families for, let’s say, three or four months. And that seems like that might be a little bit more challenging.
MA: That seems a little excessive, yeah. I think basketball is probably the best test case here because you only have five people on the court at one time. You don’t have to move as many people. Although baseball’s talking about the same thing. I know they were talking about that in in Arizona. I know this, I’ve heard a lot of people say they are absolutely positive sports are coming back in 2020. I don’t know. We could pull out the old Yogi Berra line here, you know, I don’t make predictions, especially about the future. But it seems-
JW: We could do a whole show, Matt, by the way, just of Yogi Berra quotes. Yeah.
MA: [laughter] -just of Yogi Berra-isms. It seems awfully optimistic to think that we’re gonna [sic] have sports. Think about the Olympic Games, right? The Olympic Games, they’ve been postponed for one year. The plan now is to pull them off exactly one year later. So in Tokyo 2021, though they’re still gonna [sic] call it Tokyo 2020. Even that is beginning to sound a little optimistic to me. The IOC has said: we are not pushing it back further than 2021. I bet they’re gonna [sic] have to change their tune once we get to the summer of 2021. And the idea of 6,000 athletes and 600,000 spectators, you know, convening in one city, that might stop making as much sense.
JW: Well and to clarify all that’s involved. So if they’re gonna [sic] have Olympics in Tokyo in July of 2021, they’re going to need to know definitively that they’re organizing those games by February or March. We don’t really have any idea what the world is gonna [sic] look like in February or March of 2021? Will we have vaccines? Will we have effective treatments? Is there any possibility that you can congregate that many people in one place in July of 2021, if those things, if those other things aren’t in place? We just don’t know. And so they can say that now-
JW: -and it’s fine to say that we hope and plan to do that, but it’s nothing more than a guess right now, and a wish to assert that that’s what’s gonna [sic] happen.
MA: Yeah, and you know in talking to me, I teach a course on the Olympic Games and one of the things that I do in that course is I critique the IOC and I critique the massive amounts of money that are being spent and the intense politicization of the games and the hypocrisy, actually, that I see in the IOC. So I’m not a blind proponent of the IOC. I’m a critic of them and the Olympic Games in many ways. But wouldn’t that be, boy, it sure is a nice hope. It would be a remarkable moment if at the end of all of this, you know, in 15/16 months, the world could come together, gather with some degree of certainty and sort of biological optimism moving forward, that we’ve that the worst and we’re coming out the other side, and people from all over the world could gather in Tokyo, and we could sort of celebrate health through the Olympic Games. I don’t know-
MA: –I’m kind of rolling my eyes at myself, as I’m saying this-
JW: –it’s funny that you say that, Matt-
MA: –but it sure would be nice.
JW: –because I was thinking the opposite as you were describing that. I was thinking, that would be so moving and it would feel so good, if indeed, part of what the 2021 Summer Olympics represented were that we had actually triumphed over this disease. And I say triumphed-
JW: -you know, I don’t mean to be anything but somber about all the lives we’ve already lost. And all that we probably will, surely will still lose in the months ahead. But I do think that that would be an extraordinarily cathartic moment for many people. I wanna [sic] say one other thing, Matt-
MA: Can I just say Jonathan, very quickly, it would be it would be a wonderful moment, but then it would be followed by a commercial for Bud Light [laughter], and it just might ruin it [laughter]. Okay, sorry to interrupt.
JW: [laughter] I guess this is what TiVo is for. So you can just fast forward through the commercials.
MA: [laughter] Yeah, I guess so.
JW: So, as we’re somewhat pessimistic about, first of all, the likelihood that sports could return in near future, and second, that they would be anything that we would even be excited about if they did return in this kind of unusual form. It’s worth noting that we have had two, what I will call, genuinely live sporting events in the United States in the last three weeks. The first is the WNBA Draft and the second is the NFL Draft. And I think it’s worth noting, the WNBA draft, there’s no question that Women’s Basketball is just getting more attention than it ever has before. I think, you know, Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon player who’s, was the number one pick in the WNBA Draft, has been such a sensation. That she’s attracted a lot of attention and the sport has just grown tremendously in recent years. But there’s, there was more attention it seemed to me, paid to the WNBA Draft than I’ve ever seen before. And I know the ratings were very good. And it was because it was sports and outcomes were uncertain. You don’t know what’s gonna [sic] happen [laughter] until the draft is underway and so there’s excitement and anticipation. And then the NFL Draft, which is a major media event every year and took place last week was, by all accounts, just record-shattering in terms of ratings, even as it was all conducted remotely. Roger Goodell, the commissioner who announces all the draft picks in the first round was doing so from, you know, a television den in his house, as opposed to in Madison Square Garden or, you know, on the Las Vegas Strip, which is where the NFL draft was supposed to take place. So I think at least as a harbinger, perhaps, of how people respond to anything that even looks like a live sporting event, those might be some indication.
MA: And I, the NFL is going to be fine. I do not worry for the NFL owners. They have plenty of money. The NFL will weather the storm. If they run out of money, they’ll get it from the taxpayers. That’s what the NFL owners do. I’m worried about the WNBA. You know, the WNBA deserves more recognition. The WNBA is in transition right now; it’s in economic transition. Losing an entire season, perhaps losing two seasons. I’m worried for a sports organization like that.
JW: And their season normally would be starting right about now and then going through the, going through the summer.
MA: That’s right, that’s right.
MA: So that season’s almost certainly gone.
JW: Yeah, yeah. Okay, well, Matt, I enjoyed this.
MA: Me as well, Jonathan. That was fun.
JW: And as I said at the beginning, we do have every intention of recording new episodes of the “Agony of Defeat” podcast, so just keep an eye out for that. This has been another episode of “COVID Conversations,” which has the support of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and specifically, the College of Arts and Sciences. We are grateful to Dean Terry Rhodes, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for her support, and Dean Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, whose brainchild this “COVID Conversations” series has been. We also want to thank Klaus Mayr and Matthew Belskie, who are the producers extraordinaire for this podcast, and Geneva Collins and Kristen Chavez in the Communications Office of the College of Arts and Sciences for all the wonderful work that they’ve done helping to promote the podcast. That includes having built a lovely landing page, covidconversations.unc.edu, where you can find archived versions of the show. You can also find it on SoundCloud, Stitcher, Spotify, and the Apple universe. We are going to take a break in recording next week because we’re just wrapping up final exams. And then after that, we’re very pleased to say that we’re gonna [sic] have four more episodes, involving more of our wonderful colleagues in the College of Arts & Sciences from Sociology, and then Romance Languages, and Geography. And so we will look forward to those conversations in the weeks ahead. And once again, everybody please stay safe and we hope that you and your families are well.
Transcript edited by Kelsey Eacker.