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An absence of sports has taught us the importance of the games we watch and play

ESPN should be given a Presidential Medal of Honor for moving up the start date of “The Last Dance’’ in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ballparks Remain Empty On What Would Have Been Baseball’s Opening Day
A Cubs fan walks past a statue of the late sportscaster Harry Caray outside of Wrigley Field on March 26, what was supposed to be Opening Day for Major League Baseball,
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

What has the coronavirus pandemic taught us?

The importance of social distancing? Of course. How to make a face mask? Yes. That we’re all connected, that we’re responsible for each other? Absolutely.

All those things.

There’s another big lesson coming out of the COVID-19 shutdown. This one might seem trivial by comparison, but 60-plus days of sports deprivation say otherwise:

We humans really, really need our fun and games.

Sports traditionally have been described as an escape from our everyday lives, but we might have had it backward all along. The pandemic has taught us that, for many people, sports aren’t an escape. They’re reality. They’re existence. They’re color. Everything else is beige. Thanks to the coronavirus, an NBA game on TV has been replaced by a Zoom conference meeting with an aunt who wants to show you her cross-stitch of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Somebody … help … us.

This isn’t a plea to bring back spectator sports right this minute, though that would be nice. Hope arrived Monday with news that the major-league baseball season could begin around July 4, without spectators. Good enough, as long as it’s safe. In the meantime, let’s recognize that sports are much more a part of who we are than we might have previously thought. They answer to something deep inside many people.

They aren’t just important to a large portion of the population — they’re vital. Before the coronavirus outbreak, three things dominated life for lots of folks: playing sports, watching sports and thinking about sports. Also, food. So, four things.

Without them, many of us are lost.

I know what you’re thinking: We already knew sports are important! The average value of an NFL franchise is $2.86 billion. Crazy American parents spend $15 billion a year on youth sports. So, duh. We didn’t need a virus to tell us that. We didn’t need a virus for anything.

But you can’t put a value on what sports mean to the psyche. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time watching TV news these days. Almost the entire broadcast, both local and national, is about the coronavirus. There are about 15 minutes of dire news concerning the virus, a few minutes about a snowstorm that will never come, more dire news about the virus, followed, finally, by an inspirational story about people doing something nice during the virus.

My hardly in-depth research tells me that people would rather watch a Jay Cutler retrospective than that. We’re taking COVID-19 seriously. We’d prefer not to marinate in it.

In these dark times, you’ve probably noticed a deep longing in yourself or in others. There’s a hole in your heart that only a baseball or a golf ball can fill. You don’t feel right. You feel off. Symptoms include glassy, vacant eyes and muttered statements that seem to suggest Jerry Krause should have been brought up on charges of Bulls treason.

I’ve had more than a few people tell me that their week is spent looking forward to Sunday nights, when “The Last Dance,’’ the 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan’s Bulls, runs. ESPN should be given a Presidential Medal of Honor for moving up the start date of the series six weeks in response to a sports-less world. Sportswriters should have to give a portion of their salaries to Jason Hehir, the director of the documentary. I don’t know what all of us would have to write and talk about if it weren’t for “The Last Dance.’’ I’m worried about the country’s emotional well-being after the series ends this weekend.

Newspaper sports departments used to be referred to and derided as the toy department. Not as important as the other sections of the paper, it was said. Not serious enough.

Guess what? We really need our toys.

Some newspapers have shrunk their sports sections or folded them into other sections because of COVID-19. That’s a mistake. So is moving sportswriters to the news section to cover the pandemic. People want sports more than ever. Yes, we writers certainly are struggling to come up with story ideas while the sports world is all but shut down. But the bottom of the sports-story barrel is a lot more uplifting than the daily weight of the coronavirus coverage.

Many readers want to get back to real life: sports.

So … Mitch Trubisky: a bad quarterback or a victim of a bad offense? Discuss.

And off sports fans go, glad to be back where they belong, debating the topics of the day, complaining about a coaching decision and telling a sports columnist he wouldn’t know a hockey stick from a scythe. Wait, there’s a difference?