The American sports world, so famously and abruptly shut down after it was disclosed that the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus way back on March 11 last year, has not yet fully reopened and returned to normal. But it is getting close.
Limits on stadium seating capacity are rising, along with the vaccination count. You can bet that fans will want to fill those seats this summer. But will that mean sports are all the way back? I’m not so sure. We all have our signposts of what will constitute a Return to Normal, both in our daily lives and in the country at large. And while stadiums are already starting to look a lot more like 2019 than 2020, I’d argue that it won’t be until the fall that sports will be sports again.
Because that, friends, is when tailgating almost certainly returns.
I live in Athens, Ga., home of the University of Georgia Bulldogs, a college football team with as rabid (and perpetually frustrated) a fan base as you will find in all of American sports. This is the sort of town where, if you’re wearing a Bulldogs cap at the supermarket, a small child will probably begin barking at you. We love our football here.
Yet we might love our tailgating even more. On football weekends, this place transforms into the single-subject epicenter of Everything Georgia, a gathering place where old hippies and drawling white-haired judges and soccer moms and rappers and preachers and stoners and music nerds and accountants and schoolteachers and physics professors and chicken farmers all come together to turn their bodies into 65 percent bourbon and scream for the Dawgs.
They come on Friday, in droves and packs, and start tailgating at 7 a.m. on Saturday, regardless of whether the kickoff is at noon, 3:30 p.m. or 8 p.m.
The only context, and the only constant, that sports have are the people who gather to celebrate them. In 20 years, nearly everyone directly involved with Georgia football—or the St. Louis Cardinals, or the Washington Wizards, whether they’re a player, a coach or an executive—will be long gone. But the people outside the stadium, grilling, drinking, assembling, will all still be there.
The game is not just about what happens inside the stadium; the most lasting bond, what ties people together, is what happens outside it.
But it won’t all feel truly back until I’m outside Sanford Stadium in Athens, right there, as always, with tens of thousands of my closest friends—those total strangers, wearing red and black, barking at each other, a collective reunited at last. That’s when sports will be back.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York magazine.