The Cruel, Delusional Fantasy of ‘Normal’

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

We all have a reward we’re promising ourselves for when we get through the worst of the pandemic. We will get to see our friends and family again, close-up and in person; we will eat out at our favorite restaurant once more; we will go to the movies, a concert, Hamilton (and not on Disney+). Whatever your imagined pandemic survival prize is, it’s probably something that symbolizes normalcy for you, that will signal to you that, finally, we live in the After.

For me, it’s professional sports. What pleasure could be greater than watching the Mets lose gloriously, game after game? But I miss it for reasons bigger than box scores and championship rings. Professional sports are symbolic of pre-coronavirus America. Sports represent a time when we collectively had less to worry about. If sports are back, so is Normal America.

“Sports are like the reward of a functioning society,” Sean Doolittle of the Washington Nationals told the Washington Post.

We haven’t earned that reward. And the reward itself comes at too great a cost: the lives of those who bring it to us. Put in those stark but real terms, this isn’t a “reopening;” it’s a horror show.

Cases of coronavirus are skyrocketing around the country, and the administration seems to have no plan for how to dampen the pandemic. And yet — as if the decision-makers were living in a different reality — schools are supposed to meet in person this fall and the NBA and Major League Baseball each have plans to return to play. Disney World has already opened its gates.

For owners and investors and some politicians, the incentives are mostly just profit, or at least a stanching of the financial wound. But what about for the fans? Customers? Parents? What’s in it for us? Why are we participating?

If it’s “normal” we’re looking for, we are almost certainly harming others in order to turn away from a reality too ugly and saturated in death to endure for long. Sports will be back sometime. But in Florida, where the NBA plans to resume operations, there were more new cases of coronavirus on Sunday, July 12, than in any other state on any other day since the start of the pandemic. Is now the moment to pretend we are truly ready for this sort of amusement, or the potential repercussions of our choices? We are harming people in the name of a normalcy we have not yet earned.

A return to sports will be “a sign that things are moving in the right direction, and that could be some kind of comfort,” says Dominic Packer, a professor of psychology at Lehigh University who’s running a national survey concentrating on the coronavirus’s impact on the personal lives and stress levels of an array of respondents. Of course we all want the things that used to make us happy. But, Packer notes, if we use our desire as an excuse “to deny evidence, or not seek evidence, to not want to know what the numbers are or what the effects of not social distancing are, then that’s where your mind is starting to play a trick on you.”

The trick is to ignore that actual people are engaging in a horror show happening backstage, out of view. We’re asking other humans to play out our fantasies.

Normal won’t be normal

The NBA is planning on returning to play by creating a Covid-free protective bubble to protect players, coaches, and staff in Florida, who will live and play all their games at a Disney-owned sports complex in Orlando. The bubble, however, does not include hotel employees, who will come and go freely, and risk exposure and spread. And cases of Covid-19 are running rampant in Florida.

Baseball has settled on a truncated, 60-game schedule, with teams playing in their home stadiums with no fans in attendance. At least 58 players and 8 staff members have already tested positive. Sportswriter Jeff Pearlman says the baseball season will have to end shortly after it resumes play: “Once guys start getting sick, you can’t just pretend it’s not happening, and the publicity is going to be so bad for these leagues.”

Comfort as magical thinking

When you think of sports not as a pastime but as an industry composed of millions of individuals (players, but also concession workers, ticket takers, fans), the idea seems deeply uncomfortable and ethically fraught. Do we genuinely want to be entertained at this cost? Are we willing to sacrifice the health of the players and support staff in the name of fun?

Will the bartenders at our favorite bar or the waitstaff at our neighborhood restaurant be adequately protected while spending all day breathing in droplets expelled by hundreds of patrons? Will going to a concert or a club or taking a commercial flight be worth the risk of infecting other people — or being infected ourselves by those who refuse to wear masks?

All of these fantasies — sports, travel, dining — offer an escape from the unbearable present. Packer says: “To some extent, the desire for normalcy that we’re seeing in some places at least is a sort of wishful thinking. We know it’s not really going away, but maybe we can pretend for a day or two, and go to the beach, or go to a party, and ignore it, because we’re so tired of thinking about it all the time.”

There is no inherent harm in fantasizing about seeing LeBron and Kawhi take the floor again. But when my pleasure-seeking causes me to deemphasize the possible danger I could be exposing others to, Packer suggests I need to reassess my frame of mind. “We can play tricks on ourselves when we let that desire, which is a perfectly natural one, distort our perception of what is actually happening,” he says.

A new, new normal

This is a moment for accepting our new normal, and whatever small pleasures we can indulge in without putting others at risk. Baseball, no; baseball cards, yes. Movies at the multiplex, no; movies on Netflix, yes. Bar nights, no; Zoom mixers, yes.

Sports can still be one of the big collective rewards we earn when pre-virus amusements can safely return to American life. But the kindest, most civic-minded, most human thing we can do right now is to acknowledge that we are nowhere near there yet. Our pandemic is also doubling as an outbreak of self-absorbed, self-interested fun-seeking at all costs, a literal death drive. Our rewards have to wait.

Author of Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era +4 more. Work published in the NY Times and many others. Teacher at NYU.

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