How the coronavirus pandemic – and its politics – have ruined sports, perhaps permanently

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Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski sat down with “The Ben Domenech Podcast” and told Ben Domenech why he believes the coronavirus pandemic and its politics have made covering and watching sports generally less enjoyable.

MIKE SIELSKI: I think part of the league’s (NBA’s} problem is that it has framed itself almost exclusively around its superstar players to the exclusion almost of what we’ve talked about before, which is the other component of what makes the sport popular. It’s those tribal city-to-city rivalries, right, that, you know.

The league is kind of banked [on] that if you follow Kevin Durant on Twitter or LeBron James on Twitter, that you’ll follow him wherever he goes, where he plays. And I think there’s something there’s really something to be said for the fact that someone like Kobe Bryant stayed with the same team for 20 years or that, you know, Michael Jordan stayed with the same team – that those rivalries matter.

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In terms of the wokeness of it, I think that sports fans have reached the point now where – and this is not just the NBA, this is the NFL, this is Major League Baseball, whatever sport you want to pick – I think they are at the point now where they’re kind of like, you know what? Can we just play the games?

Believe me, I write about sports from a very kind of sociological angle as much as the next person. I ended up writing a lot about Colin Kaepernick. I’ve written about those issues, too, as much as anybody. But at the core, sports fans want to watch their teams and their favorite athletes play. And to most of them, it’s a respite from everything else that’s going on in the world – politics, their job that they don’t like, any of those things. And I think that the farther a sport gets away from that, the more trouble that they’re going to have in retaining an audience.

And look, there’s a lot of things that have gone on in the last couple of years that I felt that have made it harder for me to watch sports. Take the politicization of it out of the equation, I just – I have to admit, I don’t enjoy watching sports as much anymore since the pandemic hit, and I’m not sure why that is. I have some theories about it.

BEN DOMENECH: But … tell me why that is because I would say that last year I probably watched the least sports that I’ve ever watched, like starting with the cancelation of, you know, college basketball. Effectively, that was, from my perspective, like that was the point where like, “Oh my gosh, they’re actually doing this!” You know, like, this is this pandemic is real kind of a thing to, you know, cut to this year, and I don’t think I missed a single Sunday when it came to watching the NFL. I was just so starved for sports and entertainment. But I felt like last year. It was just it was unwatchable or was just, like, a bad product all around. … And I’m curious what you think is going on there – like why? Why have people like you, who clearly love sports, you’ve made it your business, tune out?

SIELSKI: I think there are a couple of things at work. First, I’ll speak just for myself as somebody who came up in sportswriting kind of the traditional way. Once the pandemic hit, the access that I would get to athletes, coaches, executives – all of that went away and it really hasn’t come back. And for me, as a writer, that was where my bread and butter was.

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It was going into the locker room, getting an athlete one-on-one away from everybody else and talking to him or her about whatever it was I was going to write about that day. And I tended to write a lot of human interest kind of pieces. So I wanted to dive deep on some things, and once that went away, it hasn’t really come back. 

We have not been allowed in the locker rooms. We’re still doing everything by Zoom. So just for me and where I am in the way I look at sports right now and how I do my job, it’s not what it used to be. I hope it goes back to it. I’m not optimistic that it will, but there is something to be said for developing relationships with the people you cover. 

It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a homer for the hometown team or that you’re always going to protect an athlete. I would always try to write honestly about what was going on with them, but that access – the lack of that access – hurts from a more spectator standpoint. … I was struck by the emptiness of the arenas back when no fans were allowed in and how that changed the dynamic of the experience of watching it on television or on your Slingbox or wherever you were watching the games. It was just not the same. 

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