Olympics postponed. March Madness cancelled. Professional sports in limbo – will the Stanley Cup occur? Will NBA teams quarantine at Disney World? Will Major League Baseball even attempt a season? The disruptions wrought by COVID-19 to sport are mind-boggling. But let’s add this one to the list: it has disrupted our sense of eternity.
Yep, that notion of unending time is not only intimately connected to sport’s cultural significance but it’s also been fundamentally challenged by the pandemic in ways that expose material conditions undergirding elite sport.
Let’s start smaller: when live sport was effectively shut down by the pandemic, many asked “What will ESPN do with its hours of programming?” Quickly, consensus was reached: they should re-play “classic” games that sport fans can enjoy or “should” watch again.
Sport is steeped in nostalgia so this came as little surprise, but critical rhetoric scholar Dan Grano (2017) helps us think deeper about the connections between sport, temporality, and power. Grano argues that sport’s obsession with memory – manifested these past five months in unending “greatest ever” lists and “all-time” line-ups – is actually a process of continuous forgetting, or what he calls “the eternal present of sport”. Drawing on cultural studies theories of conjuncture, but also language theory of Kenneth Burke, Grano shows that only by the constant emergence of new “greatest” moments can sport maintain its obsession with the “greatest ever” in any given sport; constant erasure of the past is vital to sport’s particular brand of nostalgia. In addition, and this is crucial, this constant production of sport eternity is truly a production – as in a commercial, profit-oriented, materially interested process that has tangible winners and losers.
So what happens when a global pandemic brings this to a screeching halt? First, losing the source of new “greatest” performances has frayed our sense of eternity. Without transcendent athletic performances on our screens, we are devoid of what Grano calls “evidence of steady human evolution” towards more and more impressive physical accomplishments (31). Without this input, our vision is actually adjusting to what Burke called the “temporal contradiction” of past, present and eternal when it comes to our understandings of sport (Grano, 35).
Second, sport’s commercial interests are revealed, the production is visible. As Grano argues, “The challenge for sport media producers and institutional officials is to foster profitable obsessions over history without cultivating critical attention to the processes underlying historical production,” (35). Playing “classic” games during this pandemic is about much more than filling airwaves or consoling sad sports fans – it’s a vital part of the entire economic, social, cultural construct of sport.
This disruption is deepened by watching nearly every elite sport in the world have frank, if not antagonistic, debates about how, or if, sport will resume. This is different than NFL labor disputes amid March Madness or NBA lockouts as college football rages on. Every sport, every league is exposed in its historically contextualized material conditions: baseball players are in a standstill with owners, NBA stars have spoken out about whether or not to resume their playoffs, as have hockey, men’s soccer (US and European), and always-feisty women’s soccer; even the sacrosanct “amateurism” of college athletics has been exposed to be a contentious, material, historically specific set of forces rather than an invisible, feel-good assembly line of “greatest ever” moments.
If sport media is wary of “stoppages or intervals that would allow the past to become more fully legible” (Grano, 35), then the COVID-19 pandemic is much more disruptive than sports fans can imagine. Our very sense of past, present and eternal is at stake.
Grano, Daniel A. Eternal Present of Sport: Rethinking Sport and Religion. Temple University Press: Philadelphia, PA. 2017.