In normal, non-pandemic times, I am ravenous listener of podcasts. I’m a dedicated fan of some of the most tried and true of the format: Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air,” Marc Maron’s “WTF” and “This American Life.” I like political podcasts like the Slate’s “Political Gabfest,” Five Thirty Eight’s politics podcast and “The Ezra Klein Show.”

But most of my non-pandemic diet is soccer. I listen to two episodes of Guardian Football Weekly, “Men in Blazers,” “Caught Offside” and a Philadelphia Union-centered “Always Soccer in Philadelphia.” During the last four months, however, I had almost completely stopped listening. While the shows went on, the sport they discussed, like nearly everything else, was in hiatus.

I had not thought much about the change in habit. There were plenty of other things to take up my time, like daily COVID-19 briefings from the city of Philadelphia and Montgomery County. I read more and tried to understand as best I could what was happening to the country and the world. I honestly couldn’t say I had missed much.

Then two weeks ago, the English Premier League returned. In the past two weeks, I watched my club of choice, Liverpool, return to action with a poorly played Father’s Day draw against Everton followed by an outright 4-0 smashing of Crystal Palace. And then I watched as Chelsea, thanks in no small part to the amazing play of Hershey Pennsylvania’s own Christian Pulisic, defeat the league’s second place team, Manchester City, handing Liverpool the title. (It was no longer mathematically possible for City to earn the points it needed to catch up with and surpass Liverpool, which held a 23-point lead, a historically large gap in the English game.)

And like that, I was back in. They say you don’t know how much you miss something until it’s gone, but I honestly could not recall how much I enjoyed the weekly distractions of English football and all the great narratives that go with it until it returned. The matches may be played in empty stadiums with crowd sounds pumped in for a little extra taste of authenticity, but it still managed to deliver that sweet spectacle that you can’t find on Netflix or HBO Max.

In 2020, the idea that we may want to find some level of distraction in professional sports is fraught with real existential angst. There is so much with which to be genuinely concerned, so much work to be done, to rebuild the country in a way that is both healthy and equitable. Professional sports couldn’t be more frivolous, could it?

That may be, but sports also help bring us together, around local teams and big national events. When MLB, the NBA and MLS return soon (the women’s US soccer league kicked off last weekend, becoming the first pro league to return to action) there will be even more to celebrate, as long as all these leagues can do so safely with minimum risk to players and staff.

So, yes. Sports may not be that important, but their imminent return is a salve many around the country could truly use right now.

Pete Mazzaccaro

...