TAMPA, Fla. – This time last year 200 colleagues and I from the national and international media watched from the press box at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami as Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to a Super Bowl victory.
Those of us sitting in the press box that evening had no idea that a year later covering a Super Bowl might be hazardous to our health. But here we are, all 78 of us in a press box that holds 300, wearing face masks and shields, sitting 6 feet apart and looking down at 35,000 cardboard cutouts and 22,000 fans.
None of us would have guessed that a year later 43-year-old Tom Brady, after 20 seasons in New England, would be playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that Tampa Bay would be playing Kansas City in the Super Bowl – and win. But that’s just one of many mind-bending transformations that have taken place in the last 12 months.
A year ago, more than 80,000 fans crammed into Hard Rock Stadium, and what a party that was. Fans yelled and screamed, hugged and sat next to one another. In retrospect, many of those fans were likely already infected with a lethal coronavirus that would turn our lives inside out in the next 12 months.
We had no idea what was coming for us.
I drove here from New York to bear witness. Bear witness, to what, I wasn’t sure. History, I suppose. A potential superspreader Super Bowl?
The first time a team played on its home field in the championship game.
Or maybe it had something to do with the potential of sports as a salve to help heal wounds, or as a useful metaphor for the time-honored tradition of accepting wins — and losses — with grace.
At the very least, I wanted to see how our country’s most successful sports league would produce our most popular sporting event in the midst of a pandemic.
The NFL for its part has done as much as a league can do to send a message and set the tone for safety. Everyone on stadium grounds was required to wear a mask. Most complied.
The press box seats were separated by plexiglass shields. We can argue the point of whether the NFL should have even played this game. But once it decided that the show must go on, that owners must get their version of a stimulus check, the NFL took safety precautions seriously in a state whose governor has cast doubt about the seriousness of COVID-19.
I also came because these last 12 months have been an emotional grind and a partisan slugfest. Even in a less than ideal world, sports are the one place where for two hours we can put partisanship aside and cheer for a team. From February 2020 to February 2021, we as a nation have been consumed by an overwhelming sense of loss. Loss of mobility, loss of movement.
We have been consumed by loss of life.
This time last year, Breonna Taylor was alive. George Floyd was alive. Ahmaud Arbery was alive. Jacob Blake still had the ability to walk.
Last year 450,000 fellow citizens who have died due to COVID-19 were among the living.
Tracy Hamilton is a health care worker, and she attended Sunday’s game because her son, Antonio, plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. As a health care worker, Hamilton has witnessed so much illness, and so much death and bereavement as a front-line worker.
Being in Tampa provided a useful respite. “It’s amazing to see all the hoopla and the people who are really into this game,” she told me Sunday morning. “These people take this really, really seriously.”
Too many do not take COVID-19 as seriously. “The only thing I wasn’t too happy about was seeing so many people not masked up,” she said.
The unmasked are living their truth, their reality that COVID-19 is an overblown inconvenience that is compelling us to live our lives in fear.
“Being a health care worker, that really takes away from me being able to really enjoy and holler and enjoy every bit because so many people are walking without masks,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t come down here to catch COVID-19.”
She added: “It’s sad because you see a lot of people who do wear the mask. But for the ones that don’t, that’s really selfish. They’re taking away some of my feelings for this day.”
The biggest change over the last 12 months is that truth and reality have taken a beating, have been blitzed and sacked more than ever. Thanks to social media, we have been able to create our own truths, our own reality. If you can’t bear the truth, you can’t deal with reality and create your own.
You can’t really do that in sports, and that’s one of its great attributes.
When I sing the praises of sports, I’m not talking about the business of sports, which is wretched, exploitative and made the NFL not unlike the tobacco industry as it hides the deleterious impact of violence on the field.
I am not talking about the sociology of sport, which can be as regressive and as stubbornly racist as any other pillar of our society. I’m talking about the game, the rules of engagement, the competition on fields of play.
Regardless of party affiliation ideology, regardless of who and what you hate or love, if you aspire to be successful, the game demands accountability.
Which is why I was fascinated last week by talk about the relationship between Brady, the seven-time Super Bowl champion, and the one-term president. The relationship between the two became an issue during the run-up to Sunday’s game.
Everything we’ve learned about Brady over the last two decades is that, in the context of team and championships, accountability is the foundation of his being. Everyone is accountable for their actions.
On the other hand, the message out of the White House the last four years has been about deflection. Only acknowledge wins. When you suffer a loss, it’s someone else’s fault: the umpire, the receiver; the flawed putter, the uneven greens.
Whether it’s losing a little league baseball game, a presidential election or failing to handle a pandemic, the fault is never yours.
This is a wonderful, if delusional, way to live life, but it does not fly in championship-caliber sports. And it certainly does not fly in Brady’s arena, which may be why Brady has tried to publicly distance himself from the former president. You don’t storm the Capitol Building just because you lose.
In any event, what have we learned in the last 12 months, from all the death, the sorrow, the loss? Not much, I’m afraid, judging from the foolish and the maskless whose denial of COVID-19 continues to put us all in jeopardy.
Perhaps the deniers can learn a thing or two from Brady and from sports. In this business, the business of championship-caliber competition, accountability matters. In this business, you cannot create your own truth, you cannot create your own reality.
Scoreboards may not tell the entire story, but scoreboards don’t lie.