A month and a half after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, left the country shocked and frightened, President George W. Bush put on a bulletproof vest and took the mound at Yankee Stadium for the most memorable ceremonial pitch in history.
He gave a thumbs up to the crowd as chants of “USA!” rained down, then fired a perfect strike.
It was a snapshot in time that provided a moment of healing for a nation in grief, showcasing the importance of sports on a macro level.
“I’ve been to conventions and rallies and speeches,” Bush told MLB.com. “I’ve never felt anything so powerful, and emotions so strong, and the collective will of the crowd so evident.”
That’s what longtime Minnesota Twins season ticket holder Michael Hamerlind remembers about the world after 9/11. He recalls how the return of sports was a common thread, serving as a simple distraction for some, and a rallying cry for others, as the world slowly started returning to normal.
It’s something Hamerlind longs for as the coronavirus pandemic continues to consume the U.S. As of Friday afternoon, there were 4,586,406 confirmed cases worldwide, 306,065 recorded deaths, and no end in sight.
“Just the distraction of baseball would be lovely,” Hamerlind said. “It would just be so welcome to have something else to take our mind off of the other things that are going on.”
That’s one of the most powerful things about sports. It’s an inexplicable joy to be able to flip on the television or go to the ballpark and get lost for a few hours, the stressors of the outside world fading away if only for a few hours.
That form of escape isn’t available right now.
“This is a huge crisis, and that’s the hardest part about sports not being here,” said Dave Mason, longtime brand manager at BetOnline. “You can’t really escape it. You look at 9/11 or the financial crisis and we always had sports to get us through. There’s no sports to distract us this time around.”
That lack of distraction stemming from the absence of sports could have a profound impact on mental health down the road, according to Doug Hartmann, Chair of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.
“I think it’s more likely than not,” Hartmann said. “It’s something we rely on, and the fact that it’s gone right now is robbing us of a really important part of the human experience.”
That’s because, for a lot of people, sports are much more than an escape. It’s an important part of everyday life that’s been woven into the fabric of existence for human beings.
“As human beings, we crave meaning, purpose, and pleasure, and I think sports provides a very structured way to find those things,” Hartmann said. “We call it an escape, and that makes it seem like it’s a luxury item — or frosting on the cake — that we don’t really need to survive.
“I’d argue that we really do need that, and we aren’t getting that right now when we need it more than ever.”
Those feelings won’t go away any time soon. Even though people might adapt to a new normal over time, according to Hartmann, at their core they will always crave meaning, purpose and pleasure.
“It would take a couple of thousand years to get away from that,” Hartmann said. “It’s part of a larger evolutionary process. We might develop some alternative mechanisms as a way to cope. That doesn’t mean that craving is going to go away. It’s part of our actual physiological makeup at this point.”
That concept can manifest itself in different ways, whether it’s searching for an escape from the mundane or routine, or searching for an escape from conflict or controversy. Both currently apply as the COVID-19 crisis has simultaneously created a monotonous existence and a palpable fear of what lies ahead.
“We could all use a mental vacation right now, and that’s something sports usually provides,” Fox Sports North analysts Kevin Gorg said.”It’s tough when it’s not around. You end up having way too much time thinking about where we’re at right now in the world. You see all these things on the nightly news and that weighs on folks.”
That feeling resonates with pretty much everyone in the sports world. As much as fans miss watching the games, athletes miss playing in them.
“It’s kind of an escape from everything,” Wild defenseman Ryan Suter said. “You just get to go out and play a game.”
“It’s a huge thing for our society,” Wild general manager Bill Guerin added. “It’s part of who we are and people definitely miss it.”
Which would explain why the 2020 NFL Draft reached a record-breaking total of more than 55 million viewers last month, or why Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” has taken over Twitter every Sunday night for the past month.
It’s clear that sports fans are latching on to whatever they can get right now, and they will continue to do so as sports slowly get phased back in.
“It really brings people together, and that’s what the world really needs right now,” Whitecaps winger Allie Thunstrom said. “Not having that has kind of shown how important it is.”
While the eventual return of sports will undoubtedly provide a much-needed boost, as far as Hartmann is concerned the damage might already be done.
“It’s incomparable what we’re going through right now,” Hartmann said. “None of us have experienced something like this as it relates to sports. Maybe 9/11, and even that was only a few days in terms of the suspension of sports. There’s really no precedent, and that could have a lasting effect.”