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The Bittersweet Return of Sports

South Korean baseball and German soccer are reminders of how far we still are from normalcy.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Over the last couple of weeks, I have struggled to remember the last game I watched live. Was it Atletico Madrid’s dastardly, heartbreaking victory over Liverpool in the Champions League on March 11? I hope not. It was, more likely, a quarter or two of a meaningless mid-season NBA game the same day—in retrospect, I should have known that something was wrong when the Knicks won, even if they were only playing the Atlanta Hawks. That was, in any case, the last day with real sports: The NBA that evening suspended its season indefinitely after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid-19. 

For me and many others, it was that moment—an announcement from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, not the president or any other government official—that drove home the severity of the crisis. 

Since then I have not left my neighborhood. I have not taken the subway or, with one exception, seen anyone who does not live in my own building. And I have not watched any live sports. Once my social life revolved around the NBA and the English Premier League. Now, I live on Zoom calls where we discuss NBA Finals that aired before we were born. 

There are times when rewatching an old game is transcendent. I was too anxious during Game Seven of the 2016 NBA Finals to fully appreciate LeBron James’s performance; too convinced that something would go wrong to relish Liverpool’s improbable 4–0 defeat of Barcelona in the Champions League a year ago. But these games mostly feel like homework. I can now speak with greater confidence about the Showtime Lakers and the 1994 World Cup, but revisiting those eras had little of the excitement or camaraderie of live sports. 

So we all should be excited that live sports are coming back—just not in America. The South Korean KBO baseball league began its season last Tuesday, with teams playing in stadiums without fans. Two days later, Germany’s soccer league, the Bundesliga, announced it would be returning on May 16—though also playing in empty stadiums. And the English Premier League should be back in early June, as part of a lengthy reopening plan released on Monday by the British government. 

These are exciting developments for any starved sports fan. But they’re also bittersweet, reminders both of how far we are from a return to true “normalcy” and America’s utter failure to adequately respond to the coronavirus. 

South Korean baseball captures the strangeness of the moment. Empty of human spectators, the stadiums are full of cardboard cutouts and banners illustrated with mask-covered faces, giving the events the appearance of baseball video games from 20 years ago. The fake people only heighten the absence of humans, as well as the sad absurdity of the entire endeavor—it may be years until we pack ourselves into stadiums like sardines. 

Before one game, the first pitch was thrown out by a boy ensconced in a plastic bubble. If the players hadn’t started playing baseball, the most old-fashioned of sports, you would have thought you were watching science fiction. 

On the advice of a South Korean friend, I have adopted the Doosan Bears as my team. The first KBO champion, they have featured in six of the last seven championship series. (If you’re going to pick a team to root for, you may as well pick a winner.) I am particularly fond of Yoo Hee-kwan, their portly star pitcher who is apparently incapable of throwing the ball faster than 83 miles per hour. No one would mistake the KBO for Major League Baseball, but it’s not bad—like watching Triple-A with Korean flair. (The most appealing aspect of South Korean baseball is that it is free of the oppressive dogmas that still govern baseball: Bat flipping, for example, is frowned on as flashy and unsportsmanlike in America but celebrated in South Korea.) 

The Bundesliga’s return is an opportunity for the German league to capture a larger audience and to make a case for German leadership and ingenuity. Despite winning the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 (and absolutely demolishing the hosts 7–1 in one of the most shocking games in the tournament’s history), and despite having one of the most technically accomplished leagues in Europe, Germany hasn’t quite caught the soccer world’s imagination like England, Spain, or Italy.  

I asked ESPN editor and Borussia Dortmund superfan Elaine Teng to make the case for Bundesliga. “A lot of the players and managers you love, like [Liverpool manager and greatest German in history] Jurgen Klopp, [Chelsea’s American winger] Christian Pulisic, and [Liverpool midfielder and underappreciated genius] Naby Keita started their careers in the Bundesliga, so it’s a great place to spot young talent,” she wrote in a Twitter DM. “There’s also more goals in the Bundesliga than the Premier League. And in this era of huge money and billionaires, German clubs have a rule that ensures fans hold the majority of voting rights. That’s why tickets are so cheap!” 

As for picking a team, there is only one right answer: Anyone but Bayern Munich. 

The qualities of Germany’s centralized, competent response to the coronavirus are also present in its soccer. As Raphael Honigstein wrote in Das Reboot, his excellent account of the rejuvenation of German soccer, culminating in the 2014 World Cup, German administrative prowess played a crucial role in the country’s success. Though brute efficiency has always been the primary feature of German soccer, it has become a source of innovation, rather than indicative of a playing style that was supposedly disdainful of creativity and color.

But not even German ingenuity can solve what ails sports in a pandemic world. “The things we miss most about our pre-pandemic lives—dine-in restaurants and recreational travel, karaoke nights and baseball games—require more than government permission to be enjoyed,” The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins recently wrote. “Governors can lift restrictions and companies can implement public-health protocols. But until we stop reflexively seeing people as viral threats, those old small pleasures we crave are likely to remain elusive.” The empty seats surrounding the players is a glaring reminder of how quickly the coronavirus has altered the social fabric of our lives. I used to see the person sitting next to me at a Knicks game as a fellow traveler, someone who could join me in bitching about James Dolan. Now that person is, first and foremost, someone who could unknowingly get me or someone I care about sick. 

It’s impossible to watch South Korean baseball or German soccer without thinking about an ever-present medical reality. South Korea and Germany have also been two of the most successful countries at stopping the spread of the coronavirus. With high levels of testing and aggressive tracing, their infection rates and death tolls are far below those of the rest of the world. 

That can only serve as a contrast to the shambolic and disastrous approach employed here in the States. In South Korea and Germany, schools are open and sports are coming back. Here, it feels like nothing is being done, and we are just as far away from the return of sports as we were two months ago.