Last weekend, in full knowledge of the risks involved, I nevertheless allowed two small children to breathe on me. I should mention that I know these particular kids, and in point of fact love them a great deal. I am an uncle, and I understand that this comes with some responsibilities—having one more drink than is prudent at family gatherings, for instance, and I gather eventually also some light and inexpert coin magic. At present, my job is something like that of a max-effort one-inning relief pitcher: I show up, go all out trying to keep my niece from smearing anything disgusting onto anything important, hang my nephew upside down as needed, and then hand the ball back to the manager around naptime. Uncling is not about pacing yourself. It is about being the oldest child in the room by at least a couple decades, and giving your sister and her husband a chance to finish their coffee. But it comes with risks. The kids will breathe on you, and that only really goes one way.
And not right away, but soon enough, I got exactly what I knew was coming. There is no name for it, really—a friend called it Toddler Norovirus, which sounds about right. Whatever it was, I ended the long weekend tossed around the bed by fever dreams, waking up feeling hunted every forty minutes and greatly freaking out my tragically barf-phobic wife, who was convinced that things were about to get really upsetting. They were, if only mostly for me.
What surprised me, although it probably should not have, was how that unpleasantness arrived. While fighting whatever loathsome viruses were introduced into my body by a 21-pound person in turtle-motif onesie, my brain became an unattended firehose of scalding and indistinct anxiety. I'd close my eyes, and the black space was populated fast by the most urgent anxiety my depleted and spun-free mind could come up with—a blast of blinking virtual notifications and messages, everything urgent and indistinct, all of it arriving too implacably fast for an answer, all of it disapproving and disappointed and final. This is what happened when I got sick: the stupid internet got access to my brain.
More disturbing than this, even, was how close to that equilibrium I already was. When the sports conversation is bad—and oh brother has it ever been bad the past two weeks—that is what it is like. In the absence of anything else to talk about, the discourse devours itself, messily and noisily and with the most appalling manners. Only when we face a couple weeks as shy on sports as these last two do we see just how much worse the sports discourse can be. If you think it's bad when the Signature Personalities of Sports Cable or the crabwalking comment-section C.H.U.D.'s are talking about a particular player or a particular game, you're not wrong. But it is incalculably worse when those mutants finally, frankly get around to talking about themselves.
LOL remember caring about this shit? Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The two weeks of howling discursive nuclear winter after the Super Bowl have belonged entirely to the mutants. Survivors huddle in cellars, silent, while the last and hardiest creatures patrol the rubble outside, glibly re-litigating sexual harassment lawsuits so that they are less inconvenient to longstanding biases and blowing sulphurous grandiosities down empty alleys all night long. At night, they scuttle past the doors, hissing why did Cam Newton leave the press conference early through the seams. These creatures subsist on whatever they can, the oleaginous lumbering ones sleepily devouring the least elusive specimens in volume, the horribly blistered long-clawed ones chasing anything they can catch.
This is their time: the super-shitty longeurs of winter's bottom weeks, when the world is bottled up and grumpy and starving for the sun, and the only answer the sports world has is "uh, did you hear Joel Anthony got traded again? Yeah, it's a luxury tax thing apparently."
It's an easy thing to forget while wincing in the jet-engine overstatement of Super Bowl week, but things don't necessarily get any quieter, let alone better, once The Big Game is over. The superheated brandwash just makes its way back to room temperature and curdles, and the same dim honkers that spent Super Bowl improvising playfights on TV sets and pumping up imaginary beefs go on to spend the next weeks making just as much noise. This is not a case of the sports conversation abhorring a vacuum so much as it is the sports conversation revealing itself as a vacuum—a loud and obliterating one, and one which refuses to take a day off in the laziest way imaginable.
It's still pretty shocking how ugly and strange this can all get—consider that this week saw both the publishing of a plummy 12,000-word encomium to the college football work ethic of a serial rapist currently serving 263 years in prison and the best-paid personalities of a cable sports channel engaging in a flabby but concerted effort to disprove decades of epidemic sexual misconduct in the University of Tennessee's athletic department. And yet it's also somehow not. The bilious bad faith and blinkered pomposity and annihilating involuted stupidity of the past couple weeks are not any less present in September than they are in February, and if you're enough of a defective that you'd cross the street to shame a sexual harassment victim in the first place, you probably don't mind stepping over a snowdrift or two to do it. It's just that there's usually more competition than this.
There is, of course, always the option of turning it all off; sooner or later, even my fever-wracked brain ran out of bullshit and let me sleep for a few clammy hours. There are still new stories to find and new brilliance to appreciate, even now, but man if the weeks don't seem a little bit longer and lower every year around this time. In this blasted midwinter shitscape, any green shoot means a lot—this, maybe more than any real yearning for a meaningless May game between the Marlins and the Brewers, is why the first shabby beat-writer snapshots out of Spring Training mean so much. There is nothing to them, and nothing in them, or nothing more than professional athletes shaking off full-body hangovers to offer at some batting practice pitches or ease into a half-effort fastball or make a game attempt at a hurdler's stretch.
Video for the Twitter followers: Here— Adam Rubin (@AdamRubinESPN) February 19, 2016
In a few months, we will look at these dorky little insignificances and laugh, and, at least in a few months, we'd be right to do it. By that point, the world will be coming back into bloom again in a bunch of different ways. And honestly there is nothing to these little blips of nonsense from Spring Training, except for the very important thing that brightens up the edges. There's a very mundane but very vital sort of promise there. It's not the promise of redemption or transcendence or anything big; it's just a guy throwing a slow fastball and trying not to hurt himself. But there is somewhere in there not just the promise of winter's end but of some other season's start. Take it.