This Saturday was a strange one for 2020 because – for two completely unrelated reasons – there was cause in my life for celebration. Even stranger, a whole lot of people were celebrating with me. Unbridled joy, the kind that brings people out into the streets or causes fans to pour onto the field, is rare to begin with. It’s true catharsis, an emotional celebration that allows us to forget ourselves for a moment, throw caution to the wind, and revel in being part of something special.
Unfortunately, 2020 is a pretty dangerous time to forget ourselves and throw caution to the wind. Whether or not a particular celebration is justified is entirely up to the individual. Rationally, I might say that the election of Joe Biden as president was the more valid celebration. But I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t Notre Dame beating Clemson that made me happiest. I’m sure that most, of not all, of those reading my blog will simply not understand that. In a normal year, you would just shrug your shoulders, and say “sports fans are so weird.” Yeah. We are. Unfortunately, this year you can also say – if you wish – “sports fans are so selfish. Risking peoples health or lives for a stupid game.” In a pandemic, even something as basic as human joy becomes a question of ethics. And that’s a true tragedy.
True Celebration is Spontaneous
For those of you who don’t know (and many of you do because the end of the same was still on when Saturday Night Live was supposed to be starting) the students in Notre Dame Stadium stormed the field after beating the #1 ranked Clemson Tigers at home in double over-time. What you may not realize is that Notre Dame hasn’t beaten a #1 team since 1993, and the last time we faced Clemson we were humiliated 30-3. But this only part of the story. The other side of the story is one we all share. This has been a horrible year. Celebrations have been few and far between. We have been yearning to dance, to hug someone, to cry and be held. We know the risks, but we are also human.
In an eloquent column for Sports Illustrated, Pat Forde described the moment as “a euphoric, heedless, cathartic, unwise, spontaneous celebration. It was a scene from simpler times, pre-2020.” He then goes on to ask, “Was this a super spreader event, or a super sweet moment? Check back in a week or two, and hope for the best.” Celebration is spontaneous, but moral calculations take time. There were many decisions that lead up to this moment: the decision to have students on campus, the decision to have a football season, the decision to allow fans in the stadium. These are all worthy of discussion, but this is a blog, not a book. What happened in the moment was euphoria, and euphoria cannot be halted.
True Celebration is Personal and Communal
The point of this blog is not to go around calling out hypocrisy. Few people, including myself, manage to be 100% consistent on all issues. But I struggled a lot on Saturday with people arguing that some celebrations are justified while others are not. A particularly egregious example was journalist Aaron Rupar praising the Biden celebration and critiquing Notre Dame a mere twelve hours apart while sharing nearly identical photos. No doubt his defense would be simply that one celebration was important and the other was frivolous. Perhaps. But this is a personal judgment based on what individual people value. That’s not to be relativistic and say that all values are the same, but sports are not actually frivolous. They carry a great deal of symbolic, cultural, and communal weight, involving incredible feats of human endurance and bravery. They provide catharsis of the type that only great art can compare to. And our culture is largely deprived of art right now due to the pandemic. Joe Biden, on the other hand, is a lukewarm candidate who won on the promise of a return to normalcy. Can we really state definitively that one celebration matters more?
So Is it Okay to Celebrate?
A lot of people will argue that no celebrations are acceptable during a pandemic. Period. This is probably the most consistent position. On a rational level, I think it’s the one I hold. We shouldn’t be in large groups. Masks mitigate risk (and fortunately there were a ton of masks on that field), but they don’t eliminate risk. Having participated in protests during this year, I have made the choice that some risks are worthwhile. That decision was based equally on the emotion of anger and the rational belief in a need for political change. But the virus doesn’t care about my reasons. It was just as risky for me to march as it was for those students to rush the field. And God help us all if we decide that anger is a more valid emotion than joy. It’s not.
Rationally, I don’t think either the Biden celebrations or the Notre Dame celebrations were a good idea. On an emotional level, I was extremely happy for both the students on the field and the people dancing in Washington Square Park. They all needed that moment, deep in their human cores. It was less about justifying what they were celebrating than reveling in the fact that they were doing it at all. I hope and pray that being outside, extensive mask wearing, and a healthy dose of post-celebration quarantine will mitigate negative consequences. I’m glad I wasn’t there, and so, so sad I missed it.