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America Chooses Sports Over the 2024 Presidential Election

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On March 15, 2020, in the hallowed pages of The New York Times, I published one of the dumbest things I’ve ever written. (And there are many contenders for that title.) Four days after that fateful March 11 night when the NBA shut down, then-President Trump made his sniffly, error-filled and super-not-reassuring Oval Office speech about Covid-19, and we all learned that Tom Hanks was sick, I (and others, it should be said) worried that sports themselves might be in some sort of existential peril. If you promise to be gentle, I will quote myself:

[N]o one knows when there will be games again. And when they do return, it remains an open question whether the world of sports will be able to fully recover. I suspect that it will never be quite the same.

You’ll never believe this, but: It turned out fine. In fact, I think you could argue that sports writ large are booming in a way that they haven’t in decades. Just about every single professional and college league, even Major League Baseball, has seen a dramatic uptick in television ratings over the last year, and most are well-positioned in a TV and streaming world that values sports advertising dollars more than ever. The NBA playoffs are as thrilling as they have been in years. (BANG! BANG!). The NFL Draft, which is several hours of huge men awkwardly stuffed into suits reading names off Excel spreadsheets, will be watched by tens upon tens of millions of people. College football is so popular that it has fundamentally and forever changed how athletics on college campuses work. And, perhaps most exciting, women’s sports is exploding, with more people now watching women’s basketball than men’s. People are even optimistic about the Olympics this summer, and people are never, ever optimistic about the Olympics. You could make a very strong argument that we are at peak sports right now.

This is partly because, well, sports are awesome and people (and buffaloes with the voice of Buck Bennett) enjoy watching awesome things. But I believe the main reason for this is that sports are fulfilling their primary purpose — to serve as a distraction from the outside world — particularly well at the moment. Regardless of how much time my fellow Knicks fans and I invest in the team’s playoff run, sports do not actually matter much to our lives, which is why they’re so fun to obsess over: They’re an ultimately harmless place to put all those emotions and hopes and anxieties that we struggle with every day. If my team wins, I am happy, and if they lose, I am sad. That is pure; there is nothing else in the world like it. This is why sports are the perfect distraction — distraction from despair, distraction from boredom, distraction from loneliness, distraction from the fact that someday you and I and everyone we know is going to die. The more people need distraction, the more they are going to turn to sports.

And in this election year, if there’s one thing the people are clearly saying, over and over, it’s that they want to be distracted.

There are countless polls showing that Americans are significantly less interested in this presidential election than the last one, despite, or perhaps because of, its almost paralyzing importance. This certainly checks out anecdotally; the quickest way to elicit an eye roll from just about anyone in my life is to bring up the election, or the Trump trial, or anything about politics at all. (And I live in a swing state!) In many ways, such studied apathy is a sign that one of President Biden’s signature campaign promises, to essentially get us back to a world in which we did not have to think about politics every 30 seconds, has been kept  —not that it’s the sort of thing anyone would give him credit for. But it’s an apathy that Americans, for better or worse, are determined to hang on to. It’s telling that in contrast to 2020, the most politically active sports year in history, the sports world is staying out of politics almost entirely this year. No sports leagues are avoiding states because of legislation. (After all the fuss from four years ago, the MLB All-Star Game will be back in Georgia next year.) LeBron James isn’t hosting any rallies for Joe Biden; his athlete activism organization More Than A Vote doesn’t even exist anymore. The Rock’s shutting up. Leagues, teams, players … they’re all staying out of it.

This does not make them unusual: This makes them just like the rest of us. The impulse to tune out is an entirely sane one and, again, why sports are here in the first place. And, even as someone who believes this election is considerably more important than the last one was, or really any in my lifetime, I must admit that I do get it. I remember covering the 2016 Republican Convention in Cleveland for Bloomberg Politics, being at Quicken Loans Arena when Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination with an apocalyptic speech that was so terrifying it made my stomach turn. After a campaign like that one, and a speech that overwhelming, all I could think the next morning was: Wow, I really want to watch a baseball game right now. I yearned to escape from the world that Trump was beginning to take over. I wanted to go somewhere where I could, for a few hours anyway, pretend it wasn’t happening.

The “stick to sports” mantra has always been a ridiculous one; you can’t separate sports from politics because you can’t separate anything from politics. Every aspect of sports is affected by politics, from the anthem before the game to how the stadium you’re watching the game in was funded to how much the person you bought your hot dog from is getting paid. But, more than any other field, sports is a place where you can purchase the illusion that you are experiencing something outside the realm of politics. And that is an extremely desirable, and profitable, illusion right now.

Not only do I understand this impulse, I actually think it’s healthy. It’s not healthy to be in a hair-on-fire state all the time. The election is still more than six months away. Polls are turning in a more positive direction. Trump has taken so much of our energy and attention already; it’s reasonable that so many people don’t want to give him more. Really, it’s fine. As long as, once the NBA playoffs are over, and the World Series concludes, and everyone has left the Olympics in Paris, and November rolls around, we all remember to get our eyes back on the ball, and take our eyes off the ones we can’t stop watching right now.


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