Wojo: When sports return, will the obsession return too?

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s quiet, almost peaceful. No yelling, no cheering, no complaining about under-performing athletes or over-priced parking. We still scrutinize the Lions out of habit and necessity and still wonder which young Tiger, or Red Wing, or Piston, might become the next needed star. But it’s not nearly as rabid and doesn’t mean nearly as much, not knowing when the games and crowds will return.

It’s far from the most pressing issue today, but it stirs the question: Will sports ever matter as much again?

A large flag is pulled across the arena by the fans during the pregame ceremony of a Red Wings game vs. Columbus in December.

I think they will eventually, almost assuredly. And I’ll even add, America won’t be back to normal until they do.

Oh, there will be healthy (and perhaps temporary) perspective correction, and obsessions might not be as irrational. People could discover they appreciate the respite from the noise. Rivals might realize they don’t personally despise each other, and it’s actually inspiring to root for the same team. Parents might rethink the craziness of youth sports and fans might not have the time or energy or money, at least for a while, to devote to the games.

But in a world of crisis, where essentials and non-essentials are placed in separate boxes, sports are the rarity that belong in both. By definition, games are non-essential. By the long-term impact, they essentially touch every aspect of life, generate billions of dollars, produce jobs, fuel passion, forge connections between people who otherwise might never connect.

The sports world – like many industries – has been obliterated by the coronavirus pandemic and no one has any idea when it will be back. By June? July? Just guessing. The Tokyo Olympics caved to reality and were postponed to 2021.

The major-league baseball season was supposed to start this week – the Tigers were to open at Cleveland Thursday – but has been pushed back several weeks, maybe longer. The NBA and NHL still hope to resume their seasons, perhaps with short camps and then straight to the playoffs, but there’s no timetable. The NFL is still planning to conduct its draft April 23-25 but not in a public setting and not with spectators.

Emotional and practical connections

You must preface everything by saying nobody is sacrificing and suffering more than those who toil selflessly in health care, the front-liners, all the people personally affected by the disease. Sports may never mean the same to them.

But for those who play the games, watch the games and work the games, for the businesses and cities that rely on them, the connections are both emotional and practical. There’s anxiety because there’s no way to fight back, except by staying away. And the longer you go without something, the easier it is to re-prioritize where it fits in life.

Restaurants and bars eventually will welcome customers inside, schools will be back, stores will reopen. The health-care industry will recover and so will the financial markets.

So will sports, haltingly at first, perhaps played in empty stadiums and arenas for a while. The response after previous stoppages – strikes, lockouts, 9/11 – suggests the demand becomes pent-up, not permanently diminished.

Tigers pitchers and catchers begin a workout in Lakeland, Fla., last month, before spring training was canceled.

“That (passion) is something I don’t think will ever go away,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said Wednesday. “I miss basketball, I miss hockey too. I’m a fan just like everybody else. I think everybody misses the heck out of baseball right now. I think it’s gonna be like a party when we get back.”

In America, sports are the canary in the coal mine, chirping during prosperity, gasping at signs of danger. Two weeks ago, we were just hoping the NCAA Tournament somehow would be played. Then came the stoppages, the first alarm for many that normalcy was about to be destroyed.

Some people only began taking the disease seriously when leagues announced they’d hold games without fans. Then the NBA paused its season after Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. Then March Madness was cancelled and every organized sporting activity on every level was halted.

Now we are hunkered down, watching Netflix, ordering off Amazon, dialing for food. Ah, to turn on the TV again on a random Tuesday night and watch LeBron’s Lakers take on The Greek Freak’s Bucks. Or to see the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings, despite their struggles, showcase young players. Christian Wood is one of those rising Pistons, and he was making his mark before he tested positive, one of at least 10 NBA players that have.

You hope that struck a deeper chord among those who thought they were immune. The majority of coronavirus cases involve the elderly or infirm, and younger people in good health generally recover. But if the finest-tuned bodies in the world can contract it, anyone can. If that message was being missed, I suspect that’s changed.

Much to be regained

Sports seem inconsequential and distant at the moment, but you don’t have to feign concern about millionaire athletes or billionaire owners to lament their absence. The games provide benefits, from escapism to economics, and it’s OK to miss them. When so much is lost, in all facets of society, there’s so much to be gained, and regained.

We’re seeing a lot of good in people, and it helps when athletes spread awareness, not fear. Sports figures, locally from Blake Griffin to Chris Ilitch, have set up funds to help laid-off arena workers and employees. Money, which dominates too much of the conversation in sports, is ultimately what will bring it all back.

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CBS and Turner pay about $1 billion per year to televise the NCAA Tournament, an enormous appetite for competition and entertainment that doesn’t instantly vanish. As the NFL trudges on with its offseason of free-agent signings, it remains the loudest canary. Whether its training camps and season start on time – with approximately $9 billion annually at stake from broadcast entities – will be a significant barometer. Is it unthinkable to suggest the pro and college football seasons are in jeopardy? Nothing seems unthinkable anymore.

If a longer pause is needed before the applause resumes, so be it. The games don’t get to rush to the front of the line. Nobody knows where this is headed, but people have forecast the decline of sports before, whether from the rise of video games, the reduction of youth participation or the unavoidable risk of injury, especially concussions.

Sports will be back, and although that’s not the prevailing concern right now, they will be needed in essential and non-essential ways. Some day it will be safe to gather again, and when it is, people will want to cheer as loudly as ever.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski