ASU professors in history, religion, philosophy discuss the cultural importance of sport and impact of its lack
Last month, ESPN began airing the documentary series titled “The Last Dance" that followed Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls during their 1997-1998 season. The 10-part series also follows Jordan’s rise to stardom beginning with his high school career to his current position as a cultural icon in sports and society.
As current sporting events have been cancelled or delayed due to COVID-19, America is experiencing a culture without sports for the first time since major sports began. Many in the audience are enjoying the documentary as a way to make up for the absence of sports.
“We really have been navigating uncharted waters, though history does provide lessons, as it always does,” said sports historian Victoria Jackson, a clinical assistant professor of history at Arizona State University . “We did have a major global pandemic in the modern sports era, with the 1918-19 Spanish flu, but since it was a century ago, sports looked a lot different, with a much smaller commercial footprint — including no pressure to get back for TV contracts — and less playing opportunities, especially for women.”
During both of the world wars, canceling sports was discussed, but ultimately sports were deemed necessary, as Jackson puts it, “to entertain and lift the spirits of the people making sacrifices on the home front for their country.” But playing during these times was not without consequences, as the leagues continued to play through the Spanish flu pandemic.
“Boston was an epicenter of the outbreak, and even the great Babe Ruth, then playing for the Red Sox, contracted the Spanish flu,” Jackson said. “And if you think a sports legend contracting a deadly disease was bad, the 1919 Stanley Cup finals played by the Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens was far worse. Players and coaches contracted the Spanish flu — while playing each other, on the ice — and the Seattle health department swooped in to cancel the series after Game 5, when players had been collapsing all over the ice from ‘exhaustion.’
“Devastatingly, four days later, Canadiens player Joe Hall died. As Karen Given, host of WBUR’s Only A Game podcast, points out, the 1919 Stanley Cup Final remains the only time a U.S. major professional sports championship ended with co-champions.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the sports industry spent little time before shutting down games, training centers and other events in order to protect athletes, support staff and fans.
“I think there’s something deeper and richer that’s missed in this current moment with the suspension of sport and play for athletes and fans across the globe,” said lecturer of religious studies Terry Shoemaker, who researches sport as religion. “Sport is a creative space for human expression and meaning-making. Perhaps now, during the absence of sports, these more meaningful aspects might become evident in ways most hadn’t imagined.”
It’s not just the major sports, such as the MLB or NBA, that have been canceled or postponed. The summer Olympics, major city marathons, community sports and youth leagues have been suspended and gyms, recreation centers and dance and yoga studios were closed up until recently.
“An essential part of being human is the need to release energy, ask anyone isolating with children in small apartments,” Shoemaker said. “We do this in all kinds of ways, but sport supplies us individual and collective opportunities to exert physical and emotional energy.”
People aren’t able to participate in sports as athletes or spectators. For many, this can lead them to feel like they have lost a sense of identity.
Lecturer of philosophy Shawn Klein, who researches the philosophy of sport, points out how many fans connect quickly based on the teams they like.
“Most fans can recount times of an immediate connection with some stranger wearing the hat of their favorite team,” Klein said. “More deeply, we find this community in fans who regularly gather in homes and bars to watch their favorite teams. Along with this community comes identity. Fans experience their fandom as part of their identity.”
The community of sports goes further than sharing a favorite team with other fans. With so many teams to like and players to follow, there are always debates to be had about who is best or predictions for upcoming seasons.
Having a documentary about the legendary Chicago Bulls team from the ‘90s has sparked some discussions for fans.
“I laugh at all the never-ending debates over the greatest era of the NBA, or if the 1990s Bulls could beat the 2010s Golden State Warriors, or if Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the greatest male basketball player of all time,” Jackson said.
The documentary has also sparked questions about athletes and the way they are treated, including how they are portrayed and the standards to which they are held in the public eye. Over the last couple of decades, professional sports has changed a lot with the development of sports science, personal athlete branding and social media.
“All aspects of athletes’ lives are much more public than they ever have been,” Klein said. “And instead of just a few sports reporters reporting about an athlete, you have millions of people commentating. The loudest and most persistent voices on social media get the most attention — and these are often the voices of outrage and shaming. All of this creates an environment where it might look like we are holding athletes to different standards when it is probably just an effect of more attention and more voices.”
Players today face a unique set of hurdles that go beyond their athletic ability.
“With overwhelming amounts of performance data and media and social media obligations and expectations, it does make being a professional athlete in the 21st century categorically different from athletes who came before,” Jackson said. “These pressures provide context to understand why there has been a mental health crisis among college, Olympic development and professional athletes.”
In the cases of star athletes, such as Michael Jordan, their actions and words can speak for a whole team both publicly and internally. The documentary demonstrated the pull Jordan had on decisions for the team and team morale.
Star players are the ones who are highlighted most often and the ones who have their every move analyzed both on and off the playing field, or in Jordan’s case, the basketball court.
“Sometimes a specific player becomes symbolically representative of the team and even the city/state in which the team plays,” Shoemaker said. “In these instances, the player takes on the city’s persona so to speak. And the player and the team become interchangeable.”
However, franchise players, who play their entire career with one team, are less common today than they were back in the ‘90s when Jordan was on the Bulls. This can create “a peculiar tension between the team and the star player,” as Klein said.
As the documentary replays on television, fans continue to swim in the nostalgia of sports of the past. It has resurrected chatter about athletes and teams many people have been missing from their lives.
Sports won’t be missing forever. Until they are back up and running though, “The Last Dance” may open up more in-depth conversations about sports in society.