Sports in 2020: They Should Have Been Stopped or It Was the Year the Champions Thrived

by on December 29, 2020 · 1 comment

in Sports

Editordude: Here’s two views of sports in 2020: sports should have been halted during the pandemic versus ‘everything was weird – except who won.’

2020: The Year Sports Should Have Stopped

In this awful year, sports didn’t deliver normalcy. But they did nudge us toward justice.

By Dave Zirin / The Nation / December 2020

This cursed year of 2020 should be remembered as the time when sports was put in a meat grinder, mixed with all manner of offal and served to us as hope.

Professional sports, we were told, represented a “return to normalcy” in a time that was anything but normal. “The games must go on” was the mantra, with athletes presented as “essential workers” by sports leagues and colleges desperate for their billion-dollar fix of television cash.

Think about how quickly sports were shut down in March after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid-19, sending a warning to the country that tough times were ahead. Then think about how in a matter of weeks, sports were repackaged and games resumed for our collective distraction.

NBA and WNBA players were sent to live in a hermetically sealed bubble, locked away from their families and the outside world. College players in the revenue-producing sports were involuntary guests of honor at an infection frat party, with no pay, no semblance of union protections, and no voice. Instead, they were put on the field to keep the rickety financial tentpole of college football erect on the neoliberal campus.

Major League Baseball gave us tradition freaks a Dodgers World Series victory, only to have it marred when third baseman Justin Turner took the field after the game to celebrate while knowingly having Covid and proceeded to embrace everyone within spit-bubble distance, including his cancer-survivor manager, Dave Roberts.

Think of the games played in front of empty stands, giving an I Am Legend, post-apocalyptic field to the contest. What a bizarre scene, as coaches wore ill-fitting masks, flapping in the breeze, as announcers spoke to each other through plexiglass, again pushing an illusion of safety while players sweated and expectorated all over one another on the field and court. At least the Thunderdome had fans.

Sports, as scribe Jane McManus reminded us early in the year, is a sign of a functioning society. Our society is profoundly dysfunctional, ripped apart by disease and inflamed by racism, and sports reflected that. Far from being a respite of hope, it was a sclerotic reminder that so many of us lived this year either in a state of isolating agony or abject and dangerous denial. They served us slop and called it hope, which provokes the question about whether that’s crueler than serving nothing at all. Some of us believe slop is superior to starvation, yet 47 percent of the American public said to the Marist pollsters that they were watching less sports than a year ago, showing that many pushed away their plates.

Meanwhile a new crypto-fascist strain of sportswriting appeared to blame the low ratings on Black athletes. The hate-tract analysis—always presented without facts—was that ratings were down not because of Covid’s sucking the life out of our society but because “fans” (read “white fans”) were repulsed by Black and white players’ speaking out in solidarity with Black and brown people after the police murder of George Floyd. This explanation failed to account for why ratings were down so dramatically for golf and NASCAR, sports not exactly delivering sermons on the mount. It was just more profitable poison to pour into a body politic barely able to stand.

The players, however, withstood the avalanche of hate and did more than send tweets with hashtags, amplifying the latest atrocity. In a sports world built this year on an altar of false hope, the players gave us something real. The very same week that the Republicans used their national convention to bleat about “law and order” and “Black Lives Matter anarchists burning down our cities,” the players went on strike for Black lives in August, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.

These athletes changed the conversation, reminding all of us that the problem is not protesters but police violence. They also brought the question of the strike into the struggle for Black Lives and gave many of us a sense of hope. Real hope, completely unprocessed and unfiltered. It was hope not staged by league marketeers hoping to attract a young and diverse fan base. It was real struggle—substantial, authentic—and it sparked rage in all the right people. To see it cascade over the course of days from basketball, to baseball, to soccer, to tennis was to see labor at long last flex its power against state violence.

Yes, we don’t have a functioning society at the moment. But maybe—just maybe—the actions of athletes as workers, played a vital role in something more important than just merely a return to normal. Sports didn’t deliver normalcy in 2020. But they did nudge us toward justice.

___________________

Everything About Sports In 2020 Was Weird … Except Who Won

By Neil Paine / Fivethirtyeight / Dec. 29, 2020

This year disrupted the sports world like no other in modern history. First, the COVID-19 pandemic shut sports down almost completely in the spring and early summer; then, it dramatically altered the schedules and formats of most leagues when they did return. The NBA and WNBA played their postseasons in neutral-site bubbles, for instance, while Major League Baseball teams played only a third as many games as usual. Much of the year was spent playing in empty arenas before cardboard or virtual fans as fake crowd noise was piped in. The COVID report was more important than the injury report. This was hardly sports as we knew them before.

Because of the massive upheaval, it was fair to assume the sports themselves might also be chaotic. At times, it wasn’t clear that leagues would be able to crown a champion at all — and for those that managed to pull it off, there were serious concerns about legitimacy. With small sample sizes, no clear home advantage and the constant specter of the pandemic hanging over every game, how could the best teams be given a fair test? Would we need to discount 2020’s winners as mere flukes?

As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary. Not only did the favorites survive, they actually thrived; if anything, this was probably the most dominant season for top teams in recent memory. Somehow, after the dust settles on the chaos of 2020, we should remember it as the year of no asterisks — at least as far as its champions were concerned.

To judge this season against history, I pulled preseason betting-odds data from the indispensable Sports Odds History for the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and college football going back to 2000, and used the Internet Archive to gather the same data for the WNBA from VegasInsider when possible.1 According to the odds, here’s how (not) unexpected this year’s champions have been:

  • In the NHL, the preseason favorite Tampa Bay Lightning (+675) won the Stanley Cup.
  • In the WNBA, the co-favorite Seattle Storm (+450) won the championship.
  • In the NBA, the champion Los Angeles Lakers (+450) ranked No. 2 in preseason, only slightly behind the favored L.A. Clippers (+425).
  • In MLB, the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers (+385) were also No. 2 before the season, narrowly trailing the New York Yankees (+375).
  • In the NFL, the preseason favorite Kansas City Chiefs (+450) have the best record in the league and are currently by far the most likely Super Bowl winner.
  • And in college football, the top three teams in preseason — Clemson (+275), Ohio State (+275) and Alabama (+500) — have a combined 94.4 percent chance of winning the national championship, according to ESPN’s simulations.

That is an incredible season for top teams. If we look at the percentile rank for each league’s eventual champion in the betting market,2 the average 2020 champion was in the 93.5th percentile of preseason odds.3 According to the betting data, that is easily the most well-regarded group of champions (on average) in any season since at least 2000.

The next-closest season in that regard came all the way back in 2000, when the Yankees (No. 1 in MLB), Lakers (No. 2 in the NBA) and Devils (No. 3 in the NHL) all prevailed in their respective leagues. But even then, the Super Bowl-winning Ravens ranked just 11th in preseason NFL odds, lower than most of the teams likely to win in 2020.

Some of what we saw this year seems to be part of a trend of increasing chalkiness for favorites since the mid-2000s, accelerating even more in recent years. And it’s not exactly a coincidence that the weirdness of the pandemic led the College Football Playoff committee to default back to its familiar friends when picking this year’s field.

But the other champions on the list had to fully prove their worth on the battlefields of competition. Although their regular seasons were cut short, the Storm, Lakers and Lightning prevailed in normal, full-length playoff brackets. None had the benefit of home advantage in the bubbles of the postseason, which is usually an especially massive advantage for basketball favorites. And the Dodgers simultaneously faced the shortest regular season since 1877 and the longest World Series path of any champion in baseball history, winning a record four series en route to the title.4

Despite all the factors that would seem to work against favorites — and in favor of extreme parity — 2020’s champions were the teams we might have expected all along, pandemic or not. We don’t know what that means, necessarily, or even if it’s a good thing. (Certainly one could make the case that this should have been the year for some fresh playoff faces in college football, at the very least.) But the one thing you can’t say about these seasons played out against the backdrop of a pandemic is that they required any asterisks. There were no flukes to be had, and no one should bother questioning their legitimacy. It was business as usual — even if nothing else in sports looked remotely normal in a year we’re sure never to forget.

[For interesting links, please go to the original posts.]

 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie December 29, 2020 at 4:40 pm

Check out these progressive views about 2020 sports. What’s your take?

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