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Sports aren't a reward for a functioning society. They tell us what we value in one.

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is uncertain whether protests over social justice will continue next season.

I watched a basketball game on Saturday. My hometown team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, against the Houston Rockets. The Thunder shot 31 percent from the field and were outscored 66-35 in the second half. The Rockets won 114-80, going up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series. It wasn’t a good game by any definition. Still, I was happy to watch.

There wasn’t basketball to watch the last few days. Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks chose not to take the court for their playoff game, in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Kenosha, Wisc. last Sunday. 

The Bucks’ strike for racial justice sparked a chain reaction. Their opponents, the Orlando Magic, and the four other NBA teams scheduled to play Wednesday all walked out as well. In the WNBA, the Washington Mystics refused to play, taking the court in shirts that together spelled out Blake’s name. The NBA and NHL ultimately postponed games on Thursday and Friday; the WNBA postponed Thursday’s games. Fourteen MLB games altogether were called off between Wednesday and Friday.

“What do sports mean?” is an impossible question to answer fully. But after our latest sports-free period, it might be a good time to examine it.

On July 5, in a press conference three weeks before the MLB season was to begin, Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle uttered what might be one of the defining quotes of this era, saying that “sports are like the reward of a functioning society.” This sentence was part of a much longer response in regards to the effects of COVID-19 on the sports world. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how it applies to just about everything else.

The CDC reported 44,656 new cases on Friday. The United States, as a whole, has recorded 5,890,532 total cases and 181,143 deaths. Per the New York Times, just 10 countries have more cases per 1,000 people than the United States. It’s not unfair to say that this country is home to the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world.

When the NBA went into hiatus on March 11, the United States had 278 new cases of COVID-19, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When it returned on July 30 in a “bubble” setup at Disney World in Orlando, the CDC reported 68,042 new cases. Yet, inside the bubble, the NBA hasn’t recorded a positive COVID test in weeks. Ditto for the WNBA, bubbled just two hours away in Bradenton, Fla. at the IMG Academy.

Meanwhile, per the COVID Tracking Project, the U.S. recorded a peak 7-day testing average of 820,978 on July 29. That figure is under 700,000 now. And per the Associated Press, one out of five nursing homes — which account for 43 percent of this country’s deaths — faced severe shortages of protective gear as of Aug. 20.

Is that a “functioning” society?

It’s clear from this juxtaposition is that we don't believe sports are a mere “reward” for taking care of business on the pandemic front. They are an absolutely essential part of our lives. 

The NBA and WNBA bubbles have worked to perfection, at least where safety is concerned. Sports can work during a global pandemic, if we want them to. We are willing to devote massive amounts of time, money and resources towards their safe and successful production. Our sports will happen, whether society is “functioning” or not.

It might be more accurate to say, instead, that sports are a measure of what we value in our society; what we consider to be “functioning.” But then what is it that we value so much, that we express through sports?

I say this as someone who writes about sports for a living, who will watch basically anything with a ball and a score. But if it’s simply entertainment that we’re after, we’re going to have to do a lot better than that.

It is a privilege to be able to watch sports with regard only for personal entertainment; to tune out the world outside for a few hours with a beer and remote in hand. This is far from a bad thing. Even more so now, we should be encouraged to find as much joy as possible. Distraction, even, if need be. But the latter is a dangerously slippery slope.

For the Bucks, the shooting of Blake didn’t just hit close to home in a geographical sense. In 2018, guard Sterling Brown parked his car across multiple parking spaces outside a Milwaukee Walgreen’s. The incident ended with Brown being tased, tackled to the ground by multiple officers and arrested over what should have been a simple ticket.

“These past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African American community,” Brown said on Wednesday. “Citizens around the country have used their voices and platforms to speak out against these wrongdoings. … Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there have been no actions, so our focus cannot be on basketball.”

When the Bucks walked off the court in Orlando, they did so with the league’s best record, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player and a terrific chance of winning their first NBA championship since 1974. But they didn’t have it in them to play basketball that day. Their non-Black fans can treat racial injustice as one of those outside issues to tune out when they watch them play. To the Bucks themselves, there is nothing “outside” about it.

Black players have been carrying a burden since before they entered the bubble. It’s why “Black Lives Matter” is painted on every court in Orlando; why they have worn messages such as “Respect Us,” “Say Their Names” and “I Am A Man” on their jerseys. Many, despite concerns over how to fight for change and questions about safety, viewed the bubble as their best opportunity to push for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police in May. And after yet another high-profile incident of police brutality, their pain was impossible to ignore.

“We’re more than just basketball players; we’re people,” said Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum. “And we have these raw emotions and feelings.”

“It’s sickening,” said Bucks guard George Hill. “It’s heartless.”

“We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’ve been hung,” said LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “All you keep hearing about is fear. It’s amazing how we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”

If we cannot personally understand this pain, we still need to listen.

This is what you are saying when you implore the millionaire athletes to shut up and dribble; to keep their political views off the court: You are loving them as athletes while ignoring them as people. You are saying that your reprieve from the unpleasant news outside is more important than their raw emotions and feelings. You are saying that your entertainment is more important than their humanity. You are saying that their value, and the value of sports as a whole, is to make you happy. Nothing more.

Is that what our society has gone to such great lengths to bring back during a global pandemic?

Ultimately, the NBA decided to resume its season. So did the WNBA and NHL. No MLB games were cancelled on Saturday. The decision those leagues, teams and players came to was that cancelling the season would have foregone a large platform, from which they could keep amplifying their cause. 

But what if the strike had stuck?

I missed sports while they were gone this week. I was happy when the NBA decided to resume the season on Thursday. I plan to watch Thunder-Rockets Game 6 on Monday night.

It is fine to be a sports fan. It is fine not to be. But if the value that you personally place on sports outweighs that of the real, three-dimensional lives of the athletes that play them, you might as well turn the television off.

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730, Jacob Shames (405) 496-0168 or by email at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

Follow along on Twitter @crookstonsports and @Jacob_Shames for all the latest stories and live game updates.