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Can a Championship Be a Catharsis From Crisis?

Restarting sports is a complicated question amid a global pandemic and ongoing protests, and there aren’t any easy answers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Asterisks: Let’s talk about them. Now that sports leagues are starting to restart in what ideally would be referred to as the post-COVID landscape, those of us who remain invested in the outcomes of such competitions have some calls to make. Like, what do we do with them at all? Shortened or otherwise reformatted seasons, vestiges of labor disputes or wars, have popped up occasionally throughout sports history. But this year, for the first time, almost every non-canceled sport in almost every non-canceled country—and also the United States of America, which is, obviously, canceled—will feature a rebooted, truncated, and/or eccentric structure of play.

In Europe, soccer is resuming after a monthslong pause, with games held in empty stadiums; on match broadcasts, phantom images of crowds are being layered over vacant stands to recreate that familiar “Brighton vs. Watford, played before 12,000 Nintendo Switch account avatars” feeling we all remember from our childhoods, which took place in hell. The NBA is relocating to a controversial quarantine bubble inside Disney World; I keep trying to imagine the 2021 version of this sentence, an absolutely surreal dream-statement that’s somehow been accepted as a normal part of the discourse, and coming up with something like, “Legally, all umbrellas are considered men named Erwin now.” As for baseball [stares into the void] … well, baseball is [feels the darkness swelling within me and around me] … baseball is working toward a return at its own pace [as I slowly disintegrate, I become one with the ultimate zero, the substanceless infinity of night].

Does any of this, you know, really count? (I mean in the leagues that have figured out their comebacks; MLB’s achievement in void-dom is clearly beyond dispute.) On the one hand, we have a natural tendency to look skeptically on the champions of format-atypical seasons. Era-crossing sports comparisons thrive on structural consistency, and teams that win titles after playing fewer games, or games on a different timeline, seem to have achieved something suspiciously different from run-of-the-mill champions. If the NBA basket were 14 feet high, squads would have to be constructed differently to win; well, isn’t that also true if the season is only 50 games long? Doesn’t screwing around with the parameters necessarily reward different, maybe weirder, and more fleeting qualities? Isn’t this the moment when I look down at my notes and see “For the love of god, do not mention the 1999 New York Knicks” written in all caps?

On the other hand, this year, almost every high-level athlete on the planet is facing the same unprecedented circumstances. Reformatted seasons aren’t some strike-mandated blip; they’re the near-universal reality of athletic competition in 2020. And unless we want to plunge our arms deep into the asterisk bin and start flinging out stars by the handful—probably not as fun as it sounds, in practice!—it’s worth at least thinking about other ways these seasons may be understood. It’s worth thinking, that is, about how we might imagine them not as blurred copies of real sports, but as meaningful competitions in their own right.

On Sunday, Liverpool, the club at the top of the English Premier League table, played a scoreless draw against their Merseyside rivals, Everton, in their first game back from English soccer’s 100-day hiatus. Liverpool looked a little rusty—can’t imagine why—and Everton played a tactically disciplined, defensive match. Held in an empty Goodison Park, the whole game had a vaguely scrimmage-like quality, as if it was a quick warm-up on the way to Liverpool romping to the title. Which, most likely, is exactly what it was.

Because Liverpool held a gigantic, 25-point lead over the rest of the league before the season halted, they’re both a very good point of reference for the validity of altered seasons and a very bad one. They’re good because, well, they’re good—this was a club that was not so much playing against the rest of the Premier League as treating it the way a model treats a catwalk. They entered the lockdown break just two wins short of clinching the title, having won 27 games and lost once. They’ve been building steadily to this point from the moment Jürgen Klopp arrived to manage the club in 2015; at this point, they’re one of the best teams in recent Premier League memory. Rocky was not a surer bet to win Rocky IV than Liverpool were to win the Premier League by the beginning of March. Sticking them with an asterisk because of the coronavirus would be absurdly unfair to the players and their fans, and kind of also unfair to the asterisk, which would look like a moron, floating there incorrectly.

But this is also why Liverpool are a bad point of reference because they were so dominant before the pandemic that they made the post-reboot phase of the season academic. There are no playoffs in the Premier League. There’s no opportunity for altered conditions to give some lesser team a freakish tailwind that could take it to the title. “I never saw the Pacers making the Finals, but who knew Giannis had a paralyzing undiagnosed phobia of Goofy” is not a sentence with a soccer equivalent (at least not this year—keep hope alive). Liverpool make for a bad answer to the question of the asterisk because they’d already effectively secured the title under the old league format before the question had to be asked in the first place.

As I’ve been thinking about this question, and about Liverpool, in the past days, though, the historical continuity I’ve found myself mulling over isn’t the structural continuity of matches and formats. It’s the more intangible continuity of communities and feelings. There is a wrenching irony in the idea that Liverpool, of all clubs, will win the Premier League title in an arena without fans. Liverpool was for many years the most successful club in English soccer, but it hasn’t won the league in 30 years; its supporters are desperate to witness its return to glory, and now the return to glory will happen in an empty stadium. And Liverpool fans are some of the most passionate in sports, with an identity based in the deep history of Northern England’s industrial working class, and with an iconography rooted in symbols of communal tragedy (the Hillsborough disaster) and communal support (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”).

Of course, if any club could take the experience of winning its first league title in decades on behalf of a fanatical army of supporters and make it more overwrought and operatic, it would be Liverpool. In an empty stadium, with an international crisis raging outside, is from one angle the most Liverpool way a title could possibly be won. However you look at it, though, the event will be powerfully entwined with the history of the city, the identity of the fan base, and the conditions of this historical moment. Sports may not do much for the world, but they can emblematize like nobody’s business. Liverpool winning the title will say more about the moment we are living through than any number of New York Times op-eds, even the non-horrifying ones.

And that’s the way I’m hoping—I don’t yet know if it’s possible—to think about other sports as they return. These are wrenching conditions, but they’re not necessarily conditions in which what happens on a field of play is less meaningful or less worthy than it is in normal times. And when were those, exactly?

I guess the question I’ve been circling in my own mind is whether this whole enterprise of game-playing is something we ought to go on with at all in this moment, with hundreds of thousands of people dead, virus counts rising in many places, and protesters for racial justice in the streets. It’s a complicated question, and if the players, whose safety and values are infinitely more at stake than yours or mine, were to say no, I wouldn’t disagree with them. But if it does go on, it will mean something. It will be a venue for something. Premier League players are already kneeling in support of Black Lives Matter; NBA players are openly discussing what they can do as well. A goal, a basket, or a championship can be a bookmark in time. The challenge of the times can add more meaning to such moments than the format of a competition—and if that’s the case, this should be the last time we talk about asterisks in 2020.