The sports press without the sports

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For sports fans like myself, the absence of March Madness, combined with the loss of professional basketball and baseball seasons, has left a void. Who will be crowned the winner of our fantasy leagues? Will I get a refund on my NBA tickets? What conflicts will I have left to follow within the relatively safe confines of the sports media world?

I’m twenty-three, which means that I consume most of my sports news on social media and through sites’ highlight posts, recaps, and updates. In the absence of games, I’ve been pleased to find that there’s no shortage of random material to mine: ESPN has “This Day in History” reels (there’s Tiger Woods, in his glory days), SportsCenter shares trick plays (a clever pitcher from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, mimes with an empty hand before flinging a strike), and Bleacher Report’s got computer-generated images of teammates with swapped hairstyles. (I had to laugh at Marshawn Lynch with Russell Wilson’s curls.) For the most part, it’s entertaining; a stunning play is timeless, after all. Plus, in the era of quarantine, a trick shot or a challenge may inspire us non-athletes to go outside (while practicing social distancing, of course) and try practicing ourselves. 

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One of the perks of consuming sports news on social media—as opposed to, say, watching commentators shout at each other about nothing on television—is the ability to interact with other fans in real time. And we can feel closer to the players, too. Among the most delightful aspects of sports to emerge from these quarantined days are Instagram livestreams and recorded video conferences of professional players interacting with one another. Sometimes, players allow fans to join in on their streams for a conversation. To see NBA players like Chris Paul and Stephen Curry talk about historic moments—when they broke each others’ ankles, for instance—is a thrill. Finally, these stars—typically so focused on the game at hand and, increasingly, afraid to engage with sports journalists, lest they veer off-script—have nothing to do but talk to me. A desire for more personal connection with athletes predates the new coronavirus, of course; after this is all over, and they return to the court, they might consider making themselves more accessible. Sports reporters would love that, to be sure, and so would fans.

Sitting around at home all day, though, I’ve exhausted my social-media feeds and decided to give sports cable a try. There is no way to substitute for live games, but the anchors and analysts are doing their best: On SportsCenter, Scott Van Pelt is paying homage to high school and college seniors whose promising sports careers have been cut short on his new segment, #SeniorNight. ESPN has been doing interviews with many of the 2020 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductees, including the humble giant, Tim “Mr. Fundamental” Duncan, as well as Kobe Bryant, represented in a heartfelt conversation by his wife, Vanessa, and eldest daughter, Natalia. Sprinkled in between segments are trailers for “The Last Dance,” a ten-part docuseries that focuses on Michael Jordan and the historic nineties Chicago Bulls team. It was originally slated to debut in June, but got moved up to April 19, presumably to satisfy the quarantine demand. And when you’re tired of commentary, you go full-on nostalgia and tune into your favorite team’s reruns. So far, I’ve enjoyed games six and seven of the 2013 NBA finals, when the Miami Heat came back from a 3-2 series deficit to defeat the San Antonio Spurs and become champions for the second year in a row. The game six three-pointer by Ray Allen, sending them into overtime, will never get old. 

As the sports press seeks something new to report, there has been a lot of speculation about when seasons will return. Major League Baseball is exploring the idea of a “bubble league” that could begin in Arizona, or perhaps doing away with the American and National Leagues this year and splitting teams up at their spring-training facilities, in Florida, too, as early as May. Proposed stipulations include no fans in the ballparks; an “electronic strike zone” to keep umpires at a distance; players and coaches sitting six feet apart in the empty stands; and on-field microphones so that TV viewers, for whom more games would be broadcast nationally, can hear what the players are saying. “To the extent this misguided plan gains traction, it will be because a lot of us—particularly people in my industry, but fans as well—approach this idea solely through the prism of sports,” Craig Calcaterra, of NBC Sports, warned. “We need to set aside our laser-focus on sports as the be-all and end-all, set aside our strong and understandable desire to have sports return as soon as possible and treat the current situation with the gravity it deserves.” That message was not heard by Dana White, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, who proposed something even more radical for UFC 249: fighters competing in isolation on a private island, an idea that drew comparisons to the video game Mortal Kombat. White’s notion was to kick things off this month—“I’m going to continue to pump fights out,” he said—but, after facing criticism, the plan has been suspended indefinitely.

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A sports media junkie can find other ways to stay amused until seasons can start up again safely. But I do have one complaint: the livestreams of video games like NBA 2K20, which became the best-selling game of 2019 in a single month, are just not that enticing. I either want to play the video game myself or watch highlights of real basketball; I don’t want to watch a livestream of other people playing the video game, even if those with the controller in hand are NBA players themselves. Even worse are the computer-simulated games, to which sports betting has turned in the absence of alternatives. I understand, though; these aren’t normal times. Everybody is improvising. Which is why I now have to get back to a debate on Twitter about why Anthony Edwards should be the number one draft pick.

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Akintunde Ahmad is a recent CJR fellow and now an Ida B. Wells ­Fellow with Type Investigations. He is based in Oakland.