In hibernation going on 10 weeks now, the giant bear opens its eyes in the darkness, blinks, begins to stir. Slowly it unlimbers and lumbers toward the light.
By degrees, sports is returning or planning to, but not sports as we know it. America gradually reopens from the full lockdown of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic that began hitting us in March; all but two states have now eased restrictions.
Sports follows the timeline, but it is a new normal that we enter, and it will be with us into the summer and perhaps into fall. Maybe longer?
In everyday life the new normal sees restaurants and stores reopening but with safety guidelines including a limit on customers in the building at a given time, and social distancing. Many businesses will require masks for all employees and customers.
In sports - which are all about large social gatherings - leagues and teams will return without fans, a jarring, almost eerie sight. Is sports even sports at all without fans?
As LeBron James said before the NBA told him not to: "Games without the fans? Nah, it's impossible. I ain't playing. I play for the fans. That's what it's about."
Now, though, as the new normal seeps in, we understand the resumption of sports, even sans fans, will lift the country's spirits. As the threat continues and the related U.S. death toll tops 90,000, sports if only symbolically can play a role in the national healing.
And so NASCAR resumed racing Sunday with zero spectators at the huge Darlington (South Carolina) track that otherwise would have been packed with 50,000 fans.
The PGA Tour gave us a charity skins match on Sunday. Four golfers. No fans.
MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS all plan to resume their seasons at some point this summer - but with no fans for the foreseeable future.
"Just the very fact we're trying to figure out ways for sports to continue without fans shows you how much we want and deeply need sports," as University of Minnesota sports sociologist Mary Joe Kane told The New York Times.
(I am not being cynical to note it also shows how much leagues and teams want and deeply need the television revenue).
The unknowable question is how the NFL and college football - King Sport - will be affected later this fall.
Will football start on time? Will stadiums be full and loud or ghostly empty? Or something in between, such as the Miami Dolphins' contingency plan for a greatly reduced cap at 15,000 fans per game with precautions including social distancing?
How will the lottery work to determine who gets in? But what if there is not the demand to even need a lottery? What if the new normal, at least for a while, is that cautious, concerned fans would just as soon watch their teams on TV from the safety of their homes rather than be among a crowd again?
We will all find out the answers together.
We already are beginning to see what sports with no fans looks like - including the comical side of it.
This is the verbatim first paragraph of a soccer story Monday on ESPN.com:
"Leading South Korea club FC Seoul apologized to fans after inadvertently substituting supporters in the stands with sex dolls during their 1-0 win over Gwangju FC on Sunday."
The funniest part of hat sentence?
South Koreans have a sense of humor, apparently.
The Korean baseball league's NC Dinos team plays before a "crowd" of life-sized cardboard cutouts made from photos sent in by fans. Thankfully, unlike FC Seoul's inflatable fans, NC Dinos' cardboard spectators are fully clothed.
In Taiwan baseball, one team's "spectators" are plastic mannequins and a robot playing drums.
Surely American leagues and teams - and TV networks - will find ways to import some sort of ambiance in the bizarre void of cheering fans.
A 67-page document on MLB's resumption, optimistically planned for the regular season to start in early July, includes music in stadiums so there is at least some of the sound of a normal ball game amid the prevailing abnormality of no mascots or batboys, no handshakes or high-fives, managers wearing masks in the dugout and a recommendation that players' postgame showers be at home.
Fox Sports' Joe Buck revealed that his network's broadcast of NFL games this fall, assuming no fans are allowed, would include the piped-in noise of a cheering crowd along with fake images of fans in the stands.
Hey, we're all feeling our way through this unprecedented stuff.
I'm just hoping somebody in the Fox control room presses the wrong button after the home team scores and instead of cheering we hear a boisterous laugh track from a 1960s sitcom.
Anything goes in the temporary (we hope) age of no-fan sports ... well, with the possible exception of inflatable dolls.
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