Ruthenberg: Remember when sports made us feel good?

Crews work on a basketball arena at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. NBA games will resume Thursday. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

I feel like I owe you an apology. No, make that sports owes us all an apology.

Time was we could turn to sports - and our sports pages - as a respite, a reprieve from the world's chaos and tumult. Sports offered that much-needed opportunity for people of all stripes, beliefs and persuasions to coalesce under the banner of their favorite team. Setting aside politics, sports fans become brothers - and sisters - united against the foe wearing the wrong jersey.

Sports offered us a chance to cheer and bask - for at least a short while - in community triumph, or engage in communal mourning, before we went back to our daily lives.

Are those days gone for good? It would seem so.

After having the pleasure of reporting on our summer baseball season, which came off with nary a hitch with plenty of smiles around our beloved David Allen Memorial Ballpark, we have reached the point now where our focus is temporarily shifted to professional and major collegiate sports and it's downright depressing at times.

Of course this year was going to be different once the coronavirus lockdowns hit. Sports shut down and is it really a coincidence that once people were forced into lockdowns nerves began to fray? We clamored for the return of normalcy and sports is so much a part of that. We needed the kind of escape sports can provide. We soon realized how important sports are to our psyche and mental health.

However, once sports finally began to resume it took on tones many find difficult to embrace.

Watching the NBA with holographic fans in the stands inside "the bubble" is surreal enough, but something that happened Friday night was a perfect example of how different things have become.

Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic made nationwide news across every media platform when he stood, wearing his jersey and not a "Black Live Matter" T-shirt, for the national anthem. He was the only player on the sidelines to stand. It was such a story that he was sought out to explain himself. His coach and fellow players - who all took a knee during the anthem - did make it clear they support him.

"Kneeling while wearing a "Black Lives Matter T-shirt does not go hand-in-hand with supporting black lives," explained Isaac, an ordained minister.

The NBA has been Ground Zero for social just messaging, from painting messages on the floor to wearing social justice messages on the back of uniforms instead of players' names (not all have chosen to do so), the league has gone all-in but when you choose to be overtly political you run the risk of alienating much of your audience.

The problem for the NBA however is deeper as its ties with China seem to belie the notion of equality as reports surfaced of young players being physically abused in an NBA-sponsored camp by Chinese coaches. The NBA finally severed ties with the camp, but only after it was exposed in the media.

It's not the first time the NBA has come under fire for its coziness with the communist regime in China.

In October the league quickly worked to douse the flames of liberty when it distanced itself from comments made by the Houston Rockets' general manager when he tweeted "Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." It was in response to China's brutal repression of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, which China finally overwhelmed, imprisoning many of those protesting to keep their autonomy.

The NBA's response? It apologized to China. "We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable," it tweeted.

As it continues its close ties with a nation accused of employing slave-labor and/or child labor in manufacturing, the authenticity the NBA's claim of promoting social justice is questionable.

The truth is sports have always played a leading role in promoting racial justice, or undoing racial injustice.

Think of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. Enid can even claim some credit when Enid native Don Haskins coached Texas Western to the NCAA basketball championship in 1966, daring, for the first time ever, to put an all-black starting lineup on the floor in the championship game and defeating the University of Kentucky.

Those were genuine, real, tangible and transcendent moments.

What we are seeing now in the NBA feels manufactured to appease rather than unite and is seen by many as polarizing and divisive, particularly the response to the national anthem.

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be much hope with other sports delivering us from our current state of sports malaise.

We are seeing Major League Baseball being played to empty stadiums with cardboard cutout fans. Its season now appears to be on the brink because of players testing positive for coronavirus. But baseball, in a rush to get in 60 games, has altered its rules to the point of resembling a Friday night softball beer league.

Is anybody even watching? Although I will admit it was amusing to watch Dr. Anthony Fauci throwing out the ceremonial grounder between home and first before the Washington Nationals' home opener.

The NFL's season is in question as it grapples with coronavirus.

College football is teetering on the brink because of its timid response to resuming play.

The good news is, at least for now, we have the prospect of high school sports resuming. It also means reporting on what sports is supposed be about and what is most desperately needed: a break from the grind of daily life. Sounds refreshing, doesn't it?

Ruthenberg is sports editor for the Enid News & Eagle. Contact him at daver@enidnews.com.

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Ruthenberg is sports editor for the Enid News & Eagle.

Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for Dave? Send an email to daver@enidnews.com.

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