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Mik Dietlin Column 11

Dietlin: Americans & Sports Need Each Other

But only sports events with fans in the seats will bring us any real satisfaction

Victories such as Oregon's 2020 championship would feel hollow without fans to help celebrate them. | Pac-12.com

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By Mik Dietlin, SportsPac12



A
nice comfy sofa sits directly under two large windows in my family room. The blinds are continually halfway drawn, eliminating the street clutter from view, showcasing a wondrous sky exclusively framed for my eyes only. I find myself prone on this sofa more frequently as time passes. 

All right, not the most enthralling opening to a sports column, but hang in there. I'm about to solve a baffling mystery.

Other than clear, starry nights, the best time to spy on the heavens is when the varied cloud formations drift by. Not too long ago I saw a small grouping bearing a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.

Why Lincoln? Why not some other president, or Pee Wee Herman? I felt nature was sending me a message.

I watched Honest Abe's head float across my windows, expecting a dialog cloud to emerge from the side of his mouth revealing the message. Probably in Courier font.


Portrait of President Abraham Lincoln taken in 1863 by Alexander Gardner.

The dialog cloud never materialized, but a message did as Abe disappeared from sight. It took the form of a question.

What does it mean to be an American? 

Now I realized why it was Lincoln's face I saw. No other president has had to dig as deeply into his soul for the answer.

I thought hard. Maybe not as hard as Lincoln might have, but it was hard. Then I asked myself why I should even answer the question in the first place. But I still felt a calling of some kind, so I continued looking out the windows, absorbed in thought.

Unfortunately, my mind was nothing but a pitch-black, vacuous immensity of nothingness. I had bupkis.

Only one thing left to do. Consult the know-it-all living in the spare bedroom, Mr. Google. After lengthy research (10 minutes), I was further from a definitive answer than ever. Turns out there are as many answers as there are people.

Back to the sofa. I plopped down, and as fast as you can say Giannis Antetokounmpo, I understood indisputably what it means to be an American.

From Barrow, Alaska, to Key West, Aroostook County in Maine to Naalehu, Hawaii, and all points in between, Americans are beings afflicted with an insatiable need to inject themselves with daily doses of live sports. 

Yep, a regular Sir Issac Newton I am. 

If you follow sports, Vegas odds are 3 to 1 you either read about them, or watch several of the millions of sports news and entertainment shows available. You therefore have recently seen bobblehead jocks the world over clamoring for a response to the question plaguing our existence: 

“When is my long-overdue live sports injection coming? I'm dying here!” 

These shows search far and wide, low and high, behind mucky dark alley dumpsters, seeking the answer. I was once among those waiting breathlessly to hear any positive news on the status of the 2020 North American Tiddlywinks Association season. 


The world pairs tiddlywinks championship was held in Cambridge in 2019. | Britclip

If there was going to be Tiddlywinks this year, how would wearing gloves affect the tiddlywinks's trajectory? How would tiddlywink athletes everywhere adjust to being forced into more of a chip-shot game? 

We don't have to worry about that kind of rubbish anymore, hallelujah. The wait is over. We now have live sports. 

Sort of.

Live sports, for the time being, are played without fans. I suspect this hardly matters right now to anyone. We just want to see some form of athletic competition we don't know the outcome to. And in case we aren't a fan of UFC, horse racing, NASCAR, Korean baseball, or the Bundesliga, the fact we have any live sports at all gives us hope that normalcy is up around the bend.

Except sports without fans isn't normalcy.

European football is my next favorite sport behind college football, so I watched a few Bundesliga matches last weekend to see how this re-opening would shake out. The players appeared to play hard, the matches competitive. 

Toward the end of games several players were understandably drained, but they battled through, obviously wanting to give their television fans a reason not to wander to the kitchen. 

During the RB Leipzig vs. SC Freiburg match, played in Leipzig, something struck me. Without fans, the home-field advantage was non-existent, beyond the proximity aspect. No energy transference between fans and club to boost the local's performance. 


American Tyler Adams heads the ball for Leipzig against Freiburg. | Jan Woitas/via Dickinson Press

Looking at the Bundesliga results from last weekend is a bit startling, and telling. Beside Dortmund's 4-0 drubbing of Shalke at home, the other home teams lost 4 of the 7 games with 3 ties. 

This was only the first weekend since the re-opening of play, so more time is necessary to see if a pattern emerges. But it's a rarity bordering on the supernatural in any major world professional sports league when the home teams win just once in a particular weekend.

I'm sure the local players felt like they were playing hard, just as I thought they were. But there is no substitute for the ultimate weapon during an athletic contest—the ravenous noise of the town faithfuls. Only with tens of thousands of people pushing their heroes on can an athlete determine how far he or she can excel, how much of a sacrifice must be exerted in order to win.

Zac Purton, jockey for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, shrugs off the crowd factor at the racetrack. “I think we're all going pretty well. The morale in the jockey's room is the same as it always is, we don't really notice that the crowd is not there. We're still getting the job done and will continue to do so.”

I suppose you'd find similar comments with NASCAR racers, or from any other athlete participating in a non-team sport, especially one where a particular route must be navigated at high speed requiring a laser-like focus. I'd be greatly surprised if an athlete playing a team sport voiced the same sentiment.


A NASCAR race without fans is a strange sight. | Photo courtesy NBCSports.com

Sports played without fans in attendance is like a rock band playing to an empty arena. If it weren't for the fact that obscene television revenues allow pro sports to lose gate money and still survive, they wouldn't be played at all. 

Americans need their sports. 

They need their sports like they need their parades like they need their opinions heard loud and clear like they need their freedom like they need their SUV's like they need their pride and prejudice like they need the latest iPhone like they need their oil and coal like they need respect but don't need to give it like they need their heroes. 

I get it.

Americans are a needy people. We're not a patient bunch when it comes to not having things we feel are our divine right to have. We can't even muster the inner strength to stop our car at a stop sign anymore, so rooted is our need to keep moving ahead no matter the peril, lest we get caught from behind and have to endure the humiliation of second best.

We will have sports again, in their entirety, which means with fans in the seats. Sports is only real, truly alive and meaningful, an event, when we all participate. 

Until we can fully unite again, any other competitive measure is merely a pacifier.


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