This is it — football in the world of COVID

Been thinking a lot about COVID-19 and its ravages as a function of my day job at a major media outlet.

We chronicle deaths, tests, positivity rates, the public behavior that contributes to all of it. We haven’t been in the office as a workforce since March 13, and aren’t looking or planning to return anytime soon. The parent company of my employer has shut down main offices, like many other employers in the U.S., deciding that the fiscal value of maintaining and sustaining a workplace that nobody can frequent, and won’t be able to frequent, is significant.

The American president insists that the virus is going away, even as what is really happening is that he and those who support him have simply become comfortable with a thing that kills those who they don’t care about — the elderly, the Black, the Brown, the infirm. Going about everyday tasks wearing a mask has become normal. You leave the house, you put it on.

When football returned as the world was being ravaged by a pandemic, it was seen as unfinished business, men returning to games in front of empty tiers of stands as a coda, a respite. A few of us, perhaps hardened by what we’ve been seeing every day, by the sheer reluctance of a world to admit that things are different, came to realize that this is it.

The phrase “new normal” doesn’t really work any longer, mostly because “normal” isn’t really subjective. It’s just how things are. It’s the norm. And the norm for the world is … well … this right here. So how does football feel as it resumes amid an unchanged world? That depends on how big a cynic you are, on how accepting you are of the reality of a pandemic and it becoming part of our lives.

For me, football resuming now feels normal, because this is how the world is now.

The biggest problem with acceptance is the past, Before Times. We gathered, ate together, crammed stadiums, sang, danced, lived lives without fear of the possibility of standing next to a viral time bomb. Phrases such as “positive but asymptomatic,” or “a mild case” crept into our lexicon without us even realizing it. For those willing to accept it, Before Times are history. So why shouldn’t football resume right now? Why shouldn’t sport continue? Because it’s for the fans? It still is, just at home, on TV, which is how it is for the vast majority of sports fans anyhow, including football supporters.

Does the scream, the roar add something to the experience? It does, but as we move into the world in which we now live, those matches, that feeling is like a historical document. Barça getting annihilated by Bayern Munich didn’t hurt any less or feel any different because the stands were empty. As we anticipate a new season, do we curse that things aren’t as they were in Before Times, or do we accept the reality of where we are now, that players will test positive, be unavailable to a team for a 14-day period, like a mild ankle sprain or hamstring pull.

What do we need from football? The engagement, the distraction from how bleak the real world is? Football coming back was something of a salve. We could watch the matches, note the camera angles quite specifically chosen to not show the empty seats as piped-in crowd noise becoomes the laugh track of a pandemic.

Sport is an industry. Athletes have to work, managers have to work. Those are people’s jobs, even as to us it’s entertainment. “How dare they come back,” we think. Well, a lot of them aren’t. High school sports, many college sports are no longer happening during these times, attended by a weird desperation. When might they return? If you cancel it now, what will ever change to get things to a degree where something approximating Before Times will be possible?

There are things we know. One of them is that masks work. Do teams begin to allow fans back into stadiums? Well no, because as we all know, there will be people who will insist, for political reasons, that they shouldn’t have to wear them, thus endangering athletes, stadium staff, those of us who attend events. So this is the world as we know it, even if it’s sometimes hard to accept.

The censure motion kicked off against the man who will go down as the worst president in the history of FC Barcelona, Josep Bartomeu, would have no problem getting its almost 17k signatures in a different time. In this time there are no matches, no public gatherings that allow the collection of signatures needed. Elections are called for March, but who will be able to go and vote in person, who will be willing to travel to risk it? The club is clinging to Before Times like a great many people, even if that clinging might be, in this instance, self serving. Electronic voting? The Assembly has to approve it, and having a gathering such as that isn’t possible. So everything sits as before, a relic of a time when any one of us couldn’t potentially cause the death of another of us.

And this is the thing. The world right now feels like the Edgar Allen Poe story, Masque of the Red Death, in which there is a party during a time of plague and it’s all going like “normal” until the wrong guest shows up. We feel like there shouldn’t be games, shouldn’t be cheering, and frivolity. Games are for happy times, not a time when even taking public transit could mean taking your life, or the life of someone you love into your own hands. So what the hell is football doing?

Well, it’s doing what we should all be doing, which is getting on with it in the way as best we can.

I returned to the gym this week, after six months. This is my routine: Get dressed, leave shoes and a change of clothes in my car. I mask and glove, enter the facility, sanitize everything I am about to touch, then do my lifting in mask and gloves. To towel off, I remove a glove to touch the towel that I have brought in from home, that I know is clean. I return the towel to the bag, re-glove and resume my workout. When done I go to my car, put the workout clothes in a plastic bag as well as the shoes I wore, and put on the “clean” stuff that I have at the car. Then I sanitize hands and face before driving home to shower and clean the stuff I worked out in. This is now normal, and it’s impossible to conceive of a time when that won’t be normal for me.

Getting on with it as best we can. We think of football as a game. The people who make it go think of it as their job, just as we have jobs. So it, too, goes on as best it can. They don’t have the luxury of working from home, as so many of us do. So they just get on with it. A new season starting, transfer rumors, business dealings, Barça scandal all feels normal to me. Exhibitions and friendlies are starting. There will be no global tours to enrich club coffers, and teams will have to figure out what to do until matchday revenues return, years down the road.

But I appreciate football’s willingness to get on with it. It’s the choice that we all have, in these times of now, when reality is a lot more, so much more, than we’re willing to deal with. Does it feel right? Does it feel good? No. But only in context of the past. Life consists of a long series of “now.” This moment, this time, thing thing is all we have. What we have right now is this world, and the question of should it stop, go on as in Before Times and how do we manage reluctant reality.

What feels wrong is that a player going to work, then going to visit an elderly parent, might visit death upon them. Is that worth a game, is that worth entertainment? Is that for us to decide? Football only felt like life and death before. Now, potentially, it is. And that feels wrong unless we think about its reality as a game only for us. What would Lionel Messi do if he didn’t kick a football? Yeah, live off his accumulated millions. Puig? Fati? Whose job is essential as the notion of an “essential worker” expands and contracts to suit our morality. Notions of comfort are weird things. It’s hard, so hard to get around the fact that anything you do, any letting down of your guard, could make you deathly ill. I don’t even think any longer about wiping down the groceries that we buy with a bleach solution. It’s automatic.

Football feels wrong to me until getting my mind around that it’s only a game to me. Malaga is, in effect, laying off players. What do they do? Find a job? Doing what? Maybe we start to rethink the idea of professional sport as game, find some different thing to call it. It’s work for them. If suddenly our mundane jobs became cool, and were televised, how would we feel about going to work, about getting on with it? It’s worth asking.

In the U.S., many athletes have decided that the risk isn’t worth it. They are sitting out the season, and won’t return until it’s “safe,” however that is defined. My home state, Illinois, has phases, one through five, with five being “when a widely available treatment or vaccine is available.” Phases one through four (where we are now) are simply defined as the sheer number of people who are sick and might need hospitalization, about positivity rates. The only thing differentiating phase one from four is that there are available ventilators now. How the hell do we deal with sport when all of us are trying as hard as we can to not die, to not kill anyone as we go through life?

That’s a hard question, and one that for us has the luxury of theory. For the people whose jobs it is, they’re going to work because they have to make a living doing what they do. And that, too, is the world in which we live.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.