Two months ago, Drew Brees cemented his position as one of the NFL’s Good Guys™ by donating a bunch of money. The New Orleans Saints quarterback and his wife gave US$5-million to the state of Louisiana’s pandemic efforts.
That’s the old PR playbook for sports stars – give to charity; visit the occasional hospital; say nice, non-specific things about the brotherhood of man.
Do these things and people will assume the best of you. Brees was good at the game. Emphasis on the past tense.
Today, Brees is in staggering retreat. He’s taking fire from all sides after doing a thing you should never do – give a televised interview.
In that interview, Brees was asked about the possibility of his colleagues kneeling during the national anthem.
“I will never agree with anyone disrespecting the flag of the United States of America, or our country,” Brees said. He delivered this clanger like a swell of trumpets was coming up behind him in the background.
Four years ago, this is an applause line in the NFL. Two years ago, no one’s high-fiving you, but they’ll agree to disagree. In the current climate, it’s filling your pockets with raw meat and hopping into the tiger enclosure.
The entire internet fell on top of Brees like a piano. Current and former teammates lined up to rip him. The defences he’d built up over years – his trophies, his fame, his charitable works – were breached immediately.
Apparently, “never” means something different in Brees’s world, because hours later he’d rethought his position. A few hours after that, he rethought it again. He released what has become the pandemic’s signature art form – a video apology on Instagram.
Brees is an unusually savvy marketer of himself, but even he badly misjudged the moment. He failed to realize that, in the space of a week, the public-engagement rulebook has been rewritten.
All of a sudden, athletes are no longer celebrities. Celebrities generally get a pass for the goofy things they say because, hey, they’re celebrities. What else can you expect?
In the new, shifting order, everyone with a profile is a politician. Everything they say will be sifted not only for meaning, but also intent. Just like politicians, most athletes have no feel for this job. That’s already a problem, and it’s going to get bigger once play resumes.
Moreso than any nation since Rome during the decline, the United States is defined by its amusements. What do foreigners picture when they think of the old red-white-and-blue? At one point, it may have been the Statue of Liberty and a Ford assembly line. Today, it’s the Las Vegas strip and the Super Bowl halftime show.
One effect of the pandemic no one considered was what might happen when you close down all those amusements, all at once, for an indefinite amount of time.
You can no longer turn on the game and tune out of real life. You have no vacations to plan. You can’t go to The Cheesecake Factory and convince yourself you live in the happiest place on Earth.
For the first time in all our lives, the world is quiet.
In America, this was a chance for the citizenry to consider where they’re at and where they’re headed, without anything to distract them. After doing that for a few weeks, a lot of Americans decided a) they don’t know, and b) they don’t like each other much.
Neither that nor any of the social issues now roiling the landscape is new. All of this is depressingly old.
What’s new is that there isn’t an awards show on tomorrow night at 8 p.m. Eastern that can get everyone looking in another direction. The only live entertainment people have left is the news. News, by its nature, is more terrifying than entertaining.
This is the changed reality sports is wandering back into in a few weeks time.
The NBA announced this week it will return in late July. The NHL is targeting roughly the same start date.
A very short time ago, the questions being asked about restarting were logistical. How many games? How much money? Who’s in and who’s out? What do the playoffs look like?
Now there’s only one question – “What will they say?”
Having an opinion on current events is now an unavoidable duty.
Of course, this won’t stop a lot of people from trying to avoid it. One assumes the leagues’ top public-relations scientists are in the lab right now trying to engineer an all-purpose, non-answer answer: “I don’t think it’s time for my voice to be heard. I’m here to listen and learn.”
But evasion isn’t going to work any more. It’s no longer acceptable to retreat into dumb-jock mode. We’ve reached the point in this cultural reset where everyone is expected to choose a side publicly. And while there are a lot of bright people in sports, they are still vastly outnumbered by the ones who aren’t exactly deep thinkers.
So for the next few months, everyone in sports should assume the brace position. There are going to be many impacts.
With all that going on, you start to wonder if the sports themselves – the games, the stats, the results – are going to matter. Having grown used to a life without sports, will people care as much?
Whatever campaigns the NBA and NHL end up with will be asterisk seasons. The stands will be empty. The whole thing will have a vaguely schoolyard feel.
Insofar as the word should ever be applied to the business of putting things in nets, none of this will treated with as much seriousness as usual.
But the world outside the arena is quite serious at the moment. It may be serious enough that an aggregate of Americans do something they have not done in a long time – set aside their childish pastimes for a moment so they can concentrate on their grown-up problems.
The leagues that resume play in summer will culminate just before America’s fight of the century – November’s U.S. presidential election.
In the space between now and then, sports will be forced to grapple with existential matters: “When the games stop mattering, what are we here for?”
It is with genuine curiosity that I wonder what sort of answer sports will come up with.