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It’s rare for the D.C. area to get an almost-uniformly pleasant sports day like the one on Sunday.
For the second straight week, the NFL team found itself on the winning side of exactly the kinds of mistakes and fluky calls that usually torpedo it, and pulled its record for the season over .500. The baseball team evened up its playoff series, forestalling the annual panic and grief by at least a few days. The hockey team closed out its preseason with a shutout win, priming us all for another excellent regular season.
Like any good sports fan, I tend to lack perspective on these things: Lost games loom larger in my life than they should, and wins make me disproportionately happy. But what made Sunday so notable—what made the cheerful games even more diverting than usual—was how they contrasted with what happened after them, and what happened on Friday.
The Nationals opened its playoff series at home Friday, with ace Max Scherzer on the mound, and lost. It was a rough defeat by any measure, and a particularly grueling one given the team’s history of playoff frustration. It was depressing.
At the same time as the Nationals were grinding through that opener, the Washington Post broke the story of Donald Trump’s taped comments, and that was even more disheartening.
The media is covering this thresher of an election, more than any other I can remember, like a sporting event. Sometimes it’s the way the race feels like WWE wrestling, with outsized promos and heel turns and stunts. Sometimes it’s the way the ads for the debates share a look and feel with Monday Night Football’s campaigns. And sometimes it’s just the way the sheer unwavering partisanship on both sides feels like a sports fan’s laser-focused irrational dedication to their squad, even in the face of stupid personnel decisions and horrible strategic moves.
The crucial distinction, of course, is that the election actually matters. Any election matters, but if you’re a neurotic Jewish liberal like me, it feels like this particular election is especially critical—like it might, in fact, be a literal matter of life and death.
If my teams’ losing games loom larger in my head than they should, the constant fluorescent-light buzz of this election has taken up a more or less permanent place in the back of my mind. Between my addiction to Twitter and the conversations at work and at home and on Facebook and the “game-changing” moments that have occurred with metronomic regularity through this campaign, it has felt at times like my life has boiled down to obsessing about the election and desperately searching for ways to blot it out.
Which brings me back around to sports, and more specifically to Friday’s Nationals loss. What I kept thinking, as the setback coagulated and the details of the Trump tapes became clearer, was that this was the real curse of D.C. sports: not just that the teams lose, but that in the depressing certainty that the teams will lose, the games had lost their ability to serve as a distraction from real life. What fun is it to turn away from one grim death march of a contest only to watch another one, even if the stakes are much lower.
Sunday night, after most of the games were over, brought the second presidential debate.
With break after favorable break in the football game, and with wins stacking up, I went into the evening with that unnaturally positive feeling that’s specific to a fan who is basking in the reflected glory of their team despite having contributed literally nothing to the outcome.
This would be the opposite of Friday, I figured. Somehow the good mood engendered by the meaningless sporting events would mitigate the sour taste of even more election coverage. All would be well!
I made it maybe two minutes into the debate before deciding that I wasn’t in the mood for my own helplessness in the face of more negativity. I tried to watch the Sunday night game between the Giants and the Packers, but it seemed even more inconsequential than usual. I wound up following both events via Twitter, slack jawed and refreshing the screen, any unearned peace of mind slipping away.
NFL ratings are down this season, and the league’s PR flacks have suggested that election coverage might be one reason why. It sounded ridiculous to me when I read it on Friday morning, but Sunday night it made perfect sense: When you spend 24 hours a day following a contest where the stakes are so much higher and the action so much more ludicrous, it makes it much harder to trick your brain into feeling like sports should actually matter.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.