If you’re a cable subscriber and you’re in the mood to watch sports tonight, you’ve got some options. On ESPN, Michigan and Ohio State face off in college football, and if those aren’t your schools, Florida State and Nebraska play on NBC Sports Network. That’s not the only football, either—the NFC Championship between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks is on FS1. A lot of us have fallen out of love with America’s most popular sport, though, so if you’d rather check out our nation’s “pastime,” the SEC Network has the College World Series, while the MLB Network offers the Dodgers-Giants west coast rivalry. There’s tennis, too, on my regional Fox Network, and the Tennis Channel itself has the Australian Open final, Roger vs. Rafa. The NBA Network has a Pistons-Trailblazers Finals game on in the afternoon, and my other Fox regional network has college hoops. If you’re into soccer, both ESPNU and the ACC Network have you covered with college matches, and if you’re more into combat, you can catch WWE on FS2 or UFC on ESPN News or boxing on CBS Sports Network. There will be gymnastics on both the Big Ten Network (college) and the Olympic Channel (Olympics, obviously), and finally, if you’re partial to golf like me, you can watch men’s and women’s professional golf back-to-back on the Golf Channel.
It’s a cornucopia of televised sports, but of course, there’s a catch: We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, there are essentially no live sports being played, and everything listed in the paragraph above is a replay—often from years ago.
For people like me who mark the passage of a year by the changing of the sports seasons, and who, to greater or lesser degrees, rely on sports for purposes ranging from “distraction” to “meaning,” (I don’t want to know exactly where I fall on that spectrum), this situation is plainly weird. To what degree can replays give us our fix, and fill the emptiness—a melodramatic word, but probably not a false one—left by the absence of the “real” thing?
It turns out, that’s a complicated question. I’ve turned to online poker to kill the nighttime hours that were once filled by sports, but that only goes so far, and I knew I’d have to give in and succumb to the replays eventually. Over the past two nights, I broke, and watched a Yankees-Red Sox ALCS game from 2003 on Tuesday and a Spurs-Heat 2014 NBA Finals game on Wednesday. In one sense, it gives you a way to hone in on the details you might remember only vaguely: How wild it was that Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in for the eighth inning, or how beautiful the Spurs offense was. You can go deeper and more analytical than before, and that brings a kind of satisfaction, especially if you subscribe to the belief that the more you understand sports, at least from a physical and strategic angle, the more you can appreciate them. (The reverse is true for learning about the politics and personalities of sports … the less you know, the better.)
There’s also nostalgia. This can be experienced directly, as when I watched the Yankees beat the Red Sox. To see Derek Jeter hit a critical double, and Jorge Posada driving in the tying runs, and current team manager Aaron Boone hit his legendary home run, is to go back in time and not quite feel what you felt then, but to remember how you felt then. None of this would be possible without replays, and without the pandemic, there’s no way I would have rewatched any of these games voluntarily. I have a two-year-old daughter now, and if she’s ever interested in sports (I wish her the best of luck resisting my indoctrination efforts), it’s strange to know that she’ll never be able to experience players like Jeter or Posada the way I did, as it happened. They’ll just be stories to her, the way Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were stories that my stepfather told when I was young. Maybe now, with this detour into the past, I can tell some of those stories more vividly.
You can connect indirectly, too. Watching ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary, for instance, transports me back to the years just before I become a real-life teenager, when sports mattered to me more than they ever would again. I didn’t root for Jordan specifically—I liked the Ewing-era Knicks, one of the least aesthetically pleasing “good” teams in NBA history—but seeing his clips opens up a world. In a flash, I remember how I used to write down the playoff brackets each year, fold the paper into a cube, and store it in a small box, convinced I’d want it later (Wikipedia would have stunned me). I remember 1994, the year the Knicks and Rangers both played in the finals, and the sheer excitement that came from going to my room and turning on the radio at night, knowing something amazing, whether glorious or heartbreaking, was about to happen. To understand how you felt such a long time ago, and who you were, is itself a kind of gift that we normally wouldn’t think of pursuing. In a strange way, watching old games can bridge that gap.
It’s also worth saying that these networks have done a great job programming the classics. If parts of this don’t work, it’s not their fault—as you see in the list above, there’s a broad diversity of games, and ESPN in particular has done a great job highlighting interesting games and events across the years.
But there’s something static and vaguely depressing about it all, too, and that’s what I’ve felt the most. Maybe not in the moment, if the game’s good enough, but afterward, what have you really done? It’s the equivalent of an old man watching home videos of his glory days from decades earlier. Nothing new has taken place, the outcome was never in doubt, and today’s stars are somewhere else, waiting for their chance to resume their careers. Deep down, we know that if things were operating as normal, we’d choose live sports ten times out of ten, and when the replays end, it’s just a more glaring reminder of what we’ve lost—both in sports, and in far more important ways.
That renewed emptiness, unfortunately, is the predominant feeling. Despite the few positive side effects, watching the classic games is like playacting at being a sports fan. It doesn’t scratch the itch, the key element of anticipation is missing, and the lingering emotion in the moments after is akin to the feeling of pandemic life in general: a heavy, heavy feeling of inertia. In many ways, we’re being forced to exist in the past, and it’s nice that in sports we’re trying to curate the past to make it as lively as possible. Those brief journeys are an escape, but the present is too overwhelming to make those kind of escapes very powerful. When we emerge from the bubble, when Jeter crosses home plate and the image of Jordan hits his final shot, the gray fog settles in. Nobody wants to be in a world where the best moments have come and gone; even as spectators, we want to live now.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter here.
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