IT IS A TRUTH almost universally acknowledged that 2017 will depart unmourned shortly after 11:59:59 on Dec. 31. This was the year that three hurricanes devastated parts of the U.S. and its territories. Our politics has been rendered by bizarre circumstance into something akin to a gang fight, except even less amusing. There is an overall sense of unease and dread hanging over a great portion of the country. The zeitgeist is an untended rest stop on a deserted highway leading to a ghost town. Happy New Year!
Sports provided some respite from all of this. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt demonstrated the size of his heart and the outer limits of celebrity's ability to generate charity with his astonishing relief work in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. During this time of political and social chaos, Colin Kaepernick and some of his former colleagues who are still employed by the NFL demonstrated the value of dignified public protest in the face of rising, unreasoning outrage. Sports was forced to confront a number of different issues, from the long-term damage done by the simple act of playing football to the banning of Russia from the PyeonChang Olympics over allegations of state-sponsored doping. The reckoning on these and other issues will continue well into 2018, and it will not take place in a gymnasium.
Sports experienced #MeToo revelations, as well—with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson the latest to face accusations—but, by and large, given what was going on elsewhere, sports came through the annus horribilis in fairly fine shape. Its ability to unify was tested and frayed, but it held, at least for the moment, and weathered unprecedented criticism from the Oval Office. Even at the height of the turmoil in the 1960s, no president got up on a public podium and called protesting athletes sons of bitches.
On the field, there was a great Super Bowl (unless you are a fan of the Falcons) and a terrific World Series that brought some joy to the people of Houston. There was sufficient farce to give anyone with a sense of perspective a laugh: The Mayweather-McGregor fiasco was enough to make you wonder, as the late Guy Clark did, that "you'd of thought there's less fools in this world." The NFL's replay system, to say nothing of its Jesuitical definitions of what is and is not a reception, descended into low comedy. I have chosen to laugh myself silly at the fact that the FBI seems to have been called in to enforce the NCAA's preposterous rules regarding amateurism, when the very notion of amateurism has long been a preposterous construct in its own right. Oh, and there's a National Hockey League team in Las Vegas, where they think Toe Blake is a method of getting even after your six-team parlay didn't work out on the early games. The Golden Knights have a very funny Twitter account.
You find your optimism where you can, especially in a year when a bathysphere is required to locate hope amidst the depths of despair. I choose to look for it in our games. For all their faults (and they are legion), sporting events are still the most compelling form of public theater we have. The struggles and controversies are usually in the open, and both the damage done by sports and the benefits they provide are equally obvious. I bridle at the notion that sports is an escape from the travails of our age. They are more than that. They are, in a very real way, and to borrow a much-mocked term, a safe space where all the aspects of drama, all the heroes and villains, all the stand-ins and stuntpeople for good and evil, can play out their eternal conflicts and entertain us while they do. There's a certain sense of expiation to them.
The death of the notion of "Stick to sports" was the most heartening development during a year when everything beyond the arena seemed to be falling apart. And there's a hockey team in Vegas. How great is that?
"I choose to find optimism in our games. Sporting events are still the most compelling form of public theater we have."
HOW WILL SPORTS CHANGE IN 2018?
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