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Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, No Football, No Trump

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My dad came from Brooklyn, which meant I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan from the start. One year, I even lost whatever I had saved up from my microscopic allowance betting on World Series games with Gus, who worked behind the soda fountain at the local drugstore. When he refused to take my money, my father made me pay anyway. ("A man," he told me sternly, "always pays his debts.") In October 1952 -- I was only eight-and-a-half years old -- I remember bursting into tears on the corner of my block when I learned that Dodger pitcher Joe Black had just lost the seventh game of the World Series to the Yankees and having some strange man kneel down to help me because he thought I was lost. I can recall as well lying on my bed at night in my pajamas sometime in those years with a wadded up piece of paper. I would bounce it off the wall while thinking (radio-announcer fashion): Furillo goes back! -- that was Dodger right fielder Carl Furillo -- Back! Back! He leaps and... I would, of course, then catch the paper "baseball."

So I was a serious (and typical) sports fan from boyhood on. The Dodgers treacherously decamped for Los Angeles in 1957, so in 1962 I switched to the new Mets. Sometime in those years, I added in the New York Giants pro football team and, later in life, the Knicks in basketball. In my grown-up years, I automatically checked out the sports pages in the morning, often before I read the news, perhaps because it all meant so much and yet so very little compared to whatever else was going on in our world. So it's been strange to watch the sports pages shrink to next to nothing and realize that I no longer even glance at them. Sports is simply gone and, oddly enough, after all these years, in a world on the brink, I don't seem to miss it at all. These days, there are other more serious reasons to burst into tears on the corner of your block.

But as TomDispatch's jock culture correspondent Robert Lipsyte, former New York Times sports columnist and author most recently of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, suggests today, I may be anything but typical. In yet another of his grotesque gestures, President Trump has recently been tweeting for his "troops," his own personal pandemic death cult, to head into the streets and "liberate" locked-down states with Democratic governors not eager to immediately begin "reopening" the country to an even worse pandemic moment. He may be no less eager to declare open season when it comes to bringing back professional sports as well. In fact, as Lipsyte points out today, his reelection may depend on it. Tom

Reopening Day 2020?
Big-Time Spectator Sports Are the Last Things We Need
By Robert Lipsyte

As controversies about the "reopening" of America loom over our lives, nothing seems as intrinsically irrelevant -- yet possibly as critically important -- as how soon major spectator sports return.

If sports don't trump religion as the opiate of the masses, they have, until recently, been at least the background music of most of our lives. So here's my bet on one possible side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic to put in your scorebook: if the National Football League plays regular season games this fall, President Trump stands a good chance of winning reelection for returning America to business as usual -- or, at least, to his twisted version of the same.

That's why he announced at a recent daily coronavirus briefing-cum-rally his eagerness to bring professional sports back quickly. Though it was Major League Baseball that he mentioned -- "We have to get our sports back. I'm tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old" -- the sport that truly matters to him is football, the only major mass entertainment (other than Trumpism) that endorses tribalism and toxic masculinity so flagrantly and keeps violence in vogue. Football supports Trump in its promotion of racial division, the crushing of dissent, and the spread of misinformation, inequality, and brutality.

Whether or not the president can survive the loss of the 2020 baseball season -- already poisoned by last year's Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal -- is up for grabs. Certainly, the proposed plan to turn stadiums in the Phoenix, Arizona, area into the sports equivalent of a vast movie set for the games of all 30 major league teams (to be played without fans) seems far-fetched at best.

But football, now the true national pastime, is another matter.

In sports terms, as in so much else in coronaviral America, these are desperately deprived times, even for casual fans. There will be intense pressure -- and not only from the president's base -- for that sport's return. For many people, mostly men, it's the sustaining soap opera that has always carried them into the next week and the one after that, a porn-ish escape hatch from work and family, a currency of communication with other men, an eternal connection to a non-demanding hive.

Games for Lives?

Without professional (or even college) sports right now or realistically in the near future, fans feel even more unmoored in lives that, for all of us, are distinctly adrift. As they become edgier, it's a reasonable bet (or at least my hope) that they will also become more open to questioning Trump's mismanagement -- or, to put it more bluntly, sacrifice -- of their lives. Recent polls already seem to reflect this, with the latest Gallup Poll showing the steepest approval decline of his presidency.

The president, I suspect, fears just this, though perhaps, in the end, the hole in everyday life where sports once was may only reinforce fans' sense (like the president's) that the games are too important not to bring back, safety be damned. Certainly, Trump and other Republican politicians have already been willing enough to forfeit lives to boost their reelection chances.

The values and sensibilities of football are, of course, Trumpist in nature. That's why former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's demonstration against racism -- performed in a kind of public isolation -- elicited such a harsh reaction from the president in the now-distant pre-pandemic era. That's why the sport's billionaire owners, predominantly Trump donors, shunned Kaepernick (although some of their teams could have used his skills). They didn't dare to, or care to, give him another platform, not in an era when "president" and "racism" were becoming synonymous.

Even more tellingly, in an understandable but still disappointing me-first display, few of Kaepernick's fellow players, most of whom are also African-American, supported him publicly. After years of being celebrated as America's "warriors" and "role models," they came up desperately short when it counted. Compare them to healthcare workers and other front-line heroes of this pandemic and you'll realize just how far short they fell of even the most modest form of everyday bravery.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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