Are PA sports our unbroken bond? - Paycheck

Are PA sports our unbroken bond?

Long before the arrival of the novel coronavirus, the decline of community engagement was regularly described by commentators as the number of Americans involved in local organizations ranging from the Boy Scouts, the Knights of Columbus, the Rotary, or an informal bowling league or amateur choir.

In their place, we are told, are virtual communities based on shared political views, or common interests that could be anything from raising orchids to showing an obscure breed of dog. 

With the reduction—and for many, the near-elimination—of ordinary human contact at the grocery store or dry cleaners, though, the limitations of that sort of contact over the Internet with people who are in reality strangers have been made pretty clear.

One set of community bonds that has largely withstood the pandemic is sports—a shared loyalty that is largely a result of life in a particular region (although it is of course possible to find a Steelers bar in San Diego or a Yankees fan almost anywhere).

The floors of manufacturing shops and warehouse operations may be much less crowded than they were a year ago, but what socially distanced conversation there is on a Monday is likely to center on the most recent performance of the Steelers or the Eagles.

Even college sports, where the geographic concentration is harder to predict—and all but incomprehensible to most foreign visitors—the sense of shared identity is still there even in a year when football games have been played before empty stands and Pennsylvania’s most visible teams, Pitt and Penn State, ended their seasons with far from dazzling records.

The tightest set of bonds, though, are those solidified by high school sports, which ordinarily brings together people whose shared interest is the sport and the community rather than a connection to any of the current athletes.

High school football and basketball have largely been played before empty stands as well—but to a surprising degree, they still seem to have retained a hold on imaginations in the city neighborhoods, sprawling suburbs, and small towns of Pennsylvania.

In this year, beyond the built-in appeal of the games, watching a football game through a chain link fence or a basketball game on local access cable is for many a much-needed taste of normal life and an affirmation of shared ties that have seemed more than a little bit frayed in the recent past.  That’s no small thing in a time when isolation seems more and more to be the order of the day.

Michael O'Connell

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