Peter King is on vacation until July 26, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Will Leitch is the author of How Lucky, a new novel from HarperCollins that Stephen King called “fantastic” and was recently selected as one of the Best 20 Books Of The Year So Far by Amazon Books. He is also a contributing editor for New York magazine, a national columnist for MLB.com and the founder of the late sports website Deadspin. He also has a weekly newsletter and it’s free to subscribe.
Sports are always getting in the way of all the important things, and thank God for that.
When I was a sports-obsessed kid growing up in rural Mattoon, Ill., with my notebooks full of baseball statistics and needlessly complicated tournament brackets I created for airings of Battle of the Network Stars, my teachers would always chide me for paying more attention to the batting average of Tony Gwynn than whatever they were trying to explain to me about photosynthesis or the Battle of Hastings. I could understand their point, even then. It was already obvious that I wasn’t much of an athlete, which severely limited the practicality of caring so much about sports right from the get-go; what was the point of all this sports clatter rattling around my head? Couldn’t I fill my brain with something useful?
But what they didn’t get, what people who don’t care about sports still don’t get, is that loving sports, obsessing over sports, thinking about sports all the time . . . it’s healthy. It’s good for the soul. Sports allow us to express emotions that are otherwise often inaccessible to us, or unacceptable to the broader public, in any other context. Sports are, in the purest possible way, a safe space. Think about the last time you, out of nowhere, leapt high into the air simply because you saw something incredible, or you were so overjoyed that you simply could not sit still. Think about the last time you screamed an expletive in a crowded bar, or smashed your fist against the table. Both those involved sports, right? What else allows us to do that? I always joke that the only things that make me scream aloud—searing, unfettered, like a child—are sports, and spiders. People who don’t watch or understand sports think it’s ridiculous that we would care so much about sports. But what they don’t get is that this is what sports are for. They are relief, they are simplicity, they are portals to a place where the gnarled, thorny, forever complicated real world can fade into the background for a little while. If my favorite team wins, I am happy; if they lose, I am sad. If only life could be so clear cut. It’s no wonder we lose ourselves in it. It’s no wonder I couldn’t pay attention to the Battle of Hastings.
This does not mean that sports exist outside of the larger world and the ugliness that comes with it. Sports are down in the muck with the rest of us, alas. Sports are political because everything is political, as much as I wish they didn’t have to be. Everything you do in sports, from the channel to watch the games on to the app you check your scores with to the transportation you took to the stadium, is a political act. Sports live in the world too. But one can be aware of that in the macro while still escaping into the thrills of the moment in the micro. Many—most, probably—of my favorite athletes have little in common with me, and I suspect they’d disagree with just a large percentage of my political beliefs. If this fact makes it so I’m unable to cheer for them, I’m afraid the problem is not with them there: It is with me. Sports, like all great entertainment, is escape. On a certain level, you have to untether, and let yourself float free. The world is hard enough.
I just do not know what I would do without sports. Which is an important realization to have. Because we just about lost sports there for a second.
It is easy to forget, as the sports world at last crawls itself back toward something resembling normal, how close we came to having no sports at all. It was close, you know. The commissioner of Major League Baseball nearly canceled the 2020 season on its opening weekend. College football was temporarily shut down before conference commissioners began reversing course, and college basketball lost its tournament entirely. They pushed the Olympics back a year; they even canceled the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. And don’t think the NFL was always going to power through this either. Remember when the news broke that Tom Brady was leaving New England for Tampa Bay last April, right when we were at the very beginning of this, when we could all still pretend that this would be a normal offseason, like Brady was a one-man stimulus package for sports talk radio? Admit it: There was a little part of you that wondered if Brady’s move was going to matter at all. I sure thought that way. Sports felt perilous, precarious, teetering. It never occurred to me that sports might just vanish. It never occurred to me I might have to live without them.
When we look back at sports in the year 2020, I suspect we’ll ultimately end up considering it a bit of an exhibition year. The titles still count, don’t worry, congratulations LeBron and Brady and Kershaw and Saban, but footage of the game themselves will feel surreal and disorienting in retrospect. The whole year was off. The virtual and cardboard fans. The pumped-in crowd noises. The masked arguments between coaches and referees. (This was consistently funny in baseball.) The ever-shifting schedule, which ultimately led to several college football teams just throwing up their hands and saying, “yeah, we’re done here.” The injuries. The whole dystopian-ness of it all. I mean, jeez, Fox ran a baseball game with video game fans in the stands. My grandkids will not believe this was something we actually watched on television:
Yet: Sports still continued. And even in its diminished, compromised form, it was incredible. It was transporting, in a way it never had been before. Every moment seemed sharper, more in focus, as if I were seeing it for the first time. Even when the games themselves weren’t always great—and they weren’t—it didn’t matter. I absorbed them. I felt, more than ever, grateful. I still do.
As we pull ourselves out of the pandemic in the United States, things that were once mundane feel revelatory. The simple act of going out to dinner with friends has begun to make me downright euphoric; if you run into me on the street, know that I’m violently restraining myself from hugging you. And sports are no different. I’ve been to several baseball games now, and everything feels heightened. The grass is greener. The crack of the bat is louder. The beer is colder. It all just feels like a blessing. Losing what we lost in the pandemic, and now being able to to slowly return to living, has forced me, and I suspect many others, to re-evaluate what they value, what they cherish, what they want to hold closest.
And it can’t help but change our interaction with sports. It has changed mine. I find myself both more obsessed with the sports themselves but less interested by the external junk that surrounds them and can sometimes overtake them. I know the biggest story in the NFL this offseason is Aaron Rodgers and his dissatisfaction with the Green Bay Packers. I understand that the story has enough going on to provide headline-friendly incremental updates that will last throughout the rest of the summer. Rodgers isn’t at minicamp. The Packers hope to have him back. Rodgers says the relationship is broken. The Packers hope for a truce. The chasm is unbridgeable. The Packers must keep him. Rodgers is standing up for himself; Rodgers is ruining his legacy. Here are Five Teams Who Should Trade For Aaron Rodgers. I understand that this keeps sites like this one in business, and keeps Adam Schefter genetically fused to his phone. I even get why it’s important: Rodgers is the defending MVP, after all.
But I can’t help but feel, at the end of the day: Eh, I’ll just watch Rodgers wherever he ends up. Tell me when he gets there. There’s an old sportswriter canard (or maybe just wistful fantasy) that, in a perfect world, no one would know anything about any transactions until the first game of the season, when players trot out onto the field and we all learn things like, “Whoa, J.J. Watt plays for the Cardinals now?” This obviously-impossible-but-admit-it-pretty-enticing-when-you-think-about-it scenario would save us months of social media hot gas, and I’m not sure this would change our appreciation of the sport or the players all that much in the long run. Coming that close to losing sports made me miss and appreciate sports desperately. But I’m not sure it made me miss the other stuff. The pandemic reminded me what I truly loved about sports: The sports.
It is difficult to overstate how much I am looking forward to this upcoming NFL season. The stadiums will be full. The players will have had a normal—or semi-normal—preseason. The schedule will be recognizable. There will even be an extra week of games. What’s Brady going to look like? Will the Bills or Browns break through? Can Kyler Murray become the superstar quarterback my beloved Arizona Cardinals have been waiting for years? I cannot wait to find out the answers to all these questions. But I really can’t wait to go to a sports bar, crowded with dozens of human strangers breathing all over my vaccinated self, and just absorb the whole thing. I can’t wait to head out to a game in person, tailgating all morning and screaming all afternoon. I can’t wait to host a Super Bowl party with my closest friends, even the ones just there for the commercials. I can’t wait to have sports be my escape again.
The NFL has the same cavalcade of problems it always has, and probably some new ones from the pandemic. But it is still the NFL, with all its glories and excesses and dark pleasures. The world has been out of control, scary, dangerous, chaotic, senseless, for a while now, and it sure looks like it will remain that way for the foreseeable future. We will need our escapes where we can get them. Eventually I will go back to taking the NFL, and all sports, for granted, complaining about their shortcomings, grousing about the disappointment they can cause. Maybe that’s the next step of all this. For now, though: It has been a long, hard year. I cannot wait for us all to be able to kick back, have a beer and just, for a few hours, watch a football game unencumbered again. We have earned it. It’s OK to take it.
“While the sunny narrative of Free America shone on, its policies eroded the way of life of many of its adherents. The disappearance of secure employment and small businesses destroyed communities. The civic associations that Tocqueville identified as the antidote to individualism died with the jobs. When towns lost their Main Street drugstores and restaurants to Walgreens and Wendy’s in the mall out on the highway, they also lost their Rotary Club and newspaper—the local institutions of self-government. This hollowing-out exposed them to an epidemic of aloneness, physical and psychological. Isolation bred distrust in the old sources of authority—school, church, union, bank, media.”
—Journalist/novelist George Packer, in The Atlantic
This George Packer piece has so many insights, but the above—which describes, to a T, what happened to my beloved Central Illinois town, knocked me over.
I mentioned above that I’m an Arizona Cardinals fan. I cannot tell you enough how all-in I am on Kyler Murray. I think he might save my soul. It’s difficult for non-Cardinals fans to wrap their mind around how terrible the Cardinals quarterback situation has been for the last, oh, 50 years, but here’s a starter: If Murray starts 25 games in the next two years, he will, in his four seasons, move into fifth on the Cardinals leaderboard for starts by a quarterback since 1970, tying Kurt Warner. Fifth.
Look at this top 20, from Pro Football Reference:
Tom Tupa! He was a punter! And he’s tied for 16th! All I’ve ever wanted for this team is a franchise quarterback. We finally have one. I hope.
1. I think it’s probably time to stop couching these things in phrases like “personal choice” and “what’s best for them and their family.” Let’s just say it: If you do choose not to get a vaccine, whether you’re a professional athlete or just scrolling Twitter by yourself all day, you are wrong. It does not mean you do not have the personal choice to be wrong. It does not mean that you should suffer some sort of personal consequence for being wrong. It just means that the reason you’ve invented, or come across on some pseudo-science Facebook post, is incorrect and you have made the wrong choice. Though I will confess: It would actually be kind of cool if getting vaccinated made you magnetic. I’d never lose my keys and I could finally get rid of all these post-it notes. Anyway: Don’t be a Jon Rahm.
2. I think I can’t wait for the fall. I live in Athens, Georgia—it’s also the setting of my novel How Lucky, available at bookstores everywhere!—and as excited as I am about the return of the NFL, I will confess I am counting down the days to a real, live SEC tailgate even more. I wrote about tailgating for The Washington Post so please forgive me for quoting myself: “The game is not just about what happens inside the stadium; the most lasting bond, what ties people together, is what happens outside it.” I have missed so many of my tailgating friends. The first home game here is Sept. 11, against UAB. I might just set up my grill and tent this week. I’m sure I won’t be the first Athenian to do so. Lots of excitement for Kirby Smart’s gentlemen this year. That game against Clemson on Sept. 4 sure feels like the unofficial First Real Football Game Of The Year.
3. I think that, Internet be damned, I am buying every single NFL and college football preview magazine I can get my hands on. Street and Smith’s, Athlon, Lindy’s.
4. I think Stan Kroenke should always be shunned, in St. Louis, in London, everywhere.
5. I think they should be the Cleveland Spiders, the Atlanta Hammers, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Washington Red Tails.
6. I think the new Apple Podcasts update is an embarrassment. Remember when Apple made the best products and made you feel like you were smart for sticking with them rather an idiot? I am beginning to not remember this.
7. I think, as the father of two children under the age of 10 who had to witness the inherent awfulness of virtual learning, that this New York Times editorial was dead-on.
8. I think bat flips and endzone dances and mean-mugging and everything athletes do to celebrate something amazing they just did are awesome and anyone who has a visceral negative reaction to any of them are watching sports for the wrong reason. I also think pretending that there was a time when bat flips were universally frowned upon is legitimate Tom Lawless erasure.
9. I think my primary lesson of the pandemic, at least in my day-to-day life, is that it’s important to remember that people are not at their best right now. It is unreasonable to expect people to come out of this period fully formed, ready to pick up where they left off. We’re sprinting out of our homes so fast that we’re forgetting to open the screen door. Even when this is over, it isn’t over. We’ll get there. Give ourselves some time. Let’s all try to give each other a break.
10. I think I’d like to say thank you to Peter King for asking me to do this this week. I consider myself only a sports media-adjacent person rather than a card-carrying member—the job is too hard for me, if I’m being honest—so know that there is very little personal benefit in me telling you what everyone else in sports media is constantly telling you about Peter: He’s legitimately the nicest person you’ll ever come across in this sorry, sordid business. And very underrated as a sports internet innovator and pioneer, all told. I don’t think I’ve missed a word he’s written in . . . 20 years? In fact, I’m pretty sure this is the first column with his name on it that I won’t read all the way to the end. Anyway: Thanks, Peter. Enjoy your vacation. We need you back tanned, rested and ready.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, national columnist for MLB, a writer for Medium and the founder of Deadspin. Subscribe to his free weekly newsletter and buy his novel “How Lucky,” out from Harper Books now.