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What we’ve missed

Sports are starting to come back, and with them the feelings they inspire like no other

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman - North Carolina v Temple Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

So, if you didn’t realize, sports are back! Well, American sports, anyways, as European soccer, Korean baseball, and other such things have been operating for at least a month now because of their leadership’s superior response to a pandemic, but I digress... The WNBA and NBA are seeing action inside their bubbles, and even this facsimile of sports on TV, being played without fans at Disney World and at a sports preparatory academy, respectively, is bringing back a rush of emotions for every basketball fan alive. Ben Simmons hit a 3! Candace Parker Hail Mary! Sabrina Ionescu’s getting double teamed from jump in her first game as a professional! Bol Bol is doing things! After a spring where sports were cancelled and we all wondered, privately and publicly, what we would do without them if/when this thing lasted until fall, seeing them again in action reminded me, at least, exactly what they bring, and as the status of fall college sports is still very much in flux, I thought I’d write a little about exactly what it is we’re scared of losing if we don’t see football this fall and basketball this winter, and what we’ve already got back.

The term is often taken up more often by readers, viewers of movies and television, and even writers these days, but I think sports fans invented fandom, at least in the mainstream. People don’t often think of sports fans in the same breath as Whovians, Bronies, Trekkies, k-stans, Potterheads, and the like, but honestly, they’re very, very similar. People dressing like their favorite characters after buying overpriced, uncomfortable merch, especially to live events and screenings? Check. Online forums devoted to discussing minutiae that the creators probably aren’t even thinking about? I mean, look where you’re reading this. Rivalries between groups who like one set of characters more than that other set of characters? Yup. Frequent criticism that the media in question is “for kids” or “not serious” or “just a book series/movie/tv show/game” and doesn’t deserve the attention you’re giving it, despite robust industries around chronicling and reviewing them? You betcha. But the big one, the obvious one, the thing that brings us all here and wherever else we go to discuss our teams, is the overwhelming community that forms around liking a thing, or team, or even just a sport, a community that does a bunch of the legwork in the process of actually having friends, one where interests that might be suffocatingly isolating in some crowds become the thing about you that people like and celebrate and where no amount of knowledge, obsession, desire, or experience is too much or too little. Try explaining how much time you spend here, or on InsideCarolina, or on college basketball/football’s subreddits, or on Twitter, to a non-sports-watching partner, friend, family member, or co-worker: they will look at you like you’re out of your mind and shouldn’t bring it up again in polite society. To us, it’s basically understood, even if we don’t know each other at all, let alone as much as loved ones do. And I wonder if, first and foremost, that shared language, that parasocial connection, that ability to turn our private lives into social connection, these low-stakes but high-reward friends you can turn off and on in an instant with no repercussions, is what this pandemic has robbed sports fans of. This pandemic has already confined us to our own homes and asked us to please not gather in person with the people we love, and while the properties of a lot of other fandoms have either kept producing content or have a lot of rewatch potential, sports can only do so much while it’s not moving. Here at Tar Heel Blog, we’ve tried writing fanfic. We’ve written meta-commentary. We’ve created fan-art (well, the written kind). But none of it, I think, has really lived up to the thing we love, either due to lack of practice or because of the ways sports are different from those other properties.

Sports are special because they are infinite. It might seem like a property like Harry Potter or Grey’s Anatomy is never-ending, but even they don’t contain the multitudes of infinity that sports do, because sports are being written as we watch them, and nobody knows what’s happening next. Books, TV, movies, video games, all of them are pre-written for us. They’re all limited by human imagination and subject to audience approval, making their market pressures lean heavily in reasonably predictable ways. Villains can’t win forever, those two characters are at some point going to fall in love, that person is definitely at some point going to find what they’re looking for. Conclusions are exciting, but necessary. Pop stars are living people, so they’ve got some variability, but they’re so micromanaged that a lot of it is gone anyways, and the only real deviations from expectation are negative, inspiring exclusively sympathy and/or derision. The stories of sports, though, always have a tinge of infinity to them. Every time a trend is established, fans worry that it’s going to be a forever trend, at least on the scale of their lifetimes: What if I never see the Cubs win the World Series? Will Bill Belicheck ever stop having the best team in the AFC East? Will Ben Simmons ever hit a dadgum three and space the floor enough for the Sixers to be a playoff threat?! And this makes the conclusions to those stories consequently huger, because this is real life. It doesn’t play by the rules of the written word. Life owes us no ultimate satisfaction — indeed, these days, it often feels like it’s going out of its way to spite us — and getting it, even for a single moment, is a defiance of odds that gives us a rush like no other. We spend so much time rooting for ourselves and coming up short, whether that’s in struggling to find the right job or career, or in relationships, or in trying to find a hobby that isn’t work-related, or anything else, because it’s really hard to be a protagonist in a world of 8 billion people. A pre-determined protagonist, like the ones we read for, takes all the thrill out of it. But picking one out of, say, 30? Or even 8, as we did with Heels in the bubble? Makes it a whole lot more possible you’ll be satisfied, but not so possible that it feels particularly possible.

When I watched the WNBA open up yesterday, having decided thanks to this set of articles (seriously, read them) but also beforehand that I was rooting for the New York Liberty and Sabrina Ionescu, a lot of that came rushing back — the hope that she was going to defy the odds and be everything she will be right out of the gate, followed by the crushing realization that yes, she is a rookie in the most cutthroat league in sports and there’s going to be a learning curve, the weird mix of pride and indignation that in her first game as a pro she was being treated like an All-Star, and the hope, at the end of it, that she’d figure things out based on this moment and that moment despite overall looking pretty mortal. You can’t script this kind of thing. And at a time when so many of our lives are either on pause or moving at half-speed, I think what so many of us have needed is a version of life that moves at speed, where we have a protagonist, like us, who might not ever win but who feels close enough to invest in like we invest in ourselves. We’re getting that, and so much more, back this month, and it’s absolutely thrilling.

I spend a lot of time talking about what’s behind sports, and while I think it’s justified, there are a lot of on-court and on-field reasons we want them back too, plus the simple answer that they’re fun, and we could all use more fun right now. But I don’t think that answers what I, at least, have been feeling, which has been a need, a hole in my life, rather than a want or craving. Sports fandoms let us be characters in a story that’s being written as we go, and there’s nothing else in the world like it. If you’ve ever written anything, you know how debilitating writer’s block can feel. Finally, after four months of the absolute worst kind, our writers are picking back up the pen, and a part of us that had lain dormant can now breathe again.