The asterisk is a humble punctuation mark. Unlike the period, it doesn’t stop anything. Unlike the comma, it doesn’t even slow things down. It doesn’t shout like an exclamation point or make you puzzle like the question mark.
Instead, the asterisk usually sits quietly at the end of a sentence or behind a single word, pointing to something else on the page. Asterisks are most noticeable when they appear in the middle of an obscenity, implying what letters should be there.
Sports record books are littered with asterisks to indicate that a record or result is somehow tainted or illegitimate. Major league baseball’s steroid era resulted in a run on the asterisk — e.g., Mark McGwire’s single season home record*. But other results demand asterisks, too, like the 1972 Russian Olympic Basketball gold medal* (they cheated) or Lance Armstrong’s Seven Tour de France wins* (he cheated, too).
With 2020 thankfully over, we can spend 2021 adding asterisks to remind us how the pandemic tainted everything.
The Los Angeles Dodgers* won the 2020 World Series by beating Tampa Bay in six games. The series itself was legit, aside from being played at a neutral site. But the 60-game regular season was the shortest since 1872.
The Los Angeles Lakers* were crowned 2020 NBA Champions after beating Miami in six games. OK, that sounds normal enough until you consider how the pandemic-hijacked NBA season was halted in early March and resumed in late July when 22 of 30 teams entered a “bubble” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, where they spent two-and-a-half months playing to empty stands and being tested constantly. Two asterisks maybe?
The NCAA’s 2020 March Madness* men’s basketball tournament stopped before it started, leaving the real March Madness to the Great Toilet Paper Hunt.
The 2020 Summer Olympics* became the 2021 Summer Olympics, which will cause sports historians in the distant future wonder why a Summer Olympics was held in an odd year.
The College Football Championship* completed a weird season filled with COVID-created postponements and cancellations. Once Alabama and Ohio State advanced the title game in January, the most meaningful pre-game statistic was the number of positive tests and close contacts.
But asterisks will be pervasive beyond sports. Countless other events and statistics will require amplification as well.
The U.S. unemployment rate jumped from 3.8 percent in February to 13 percent* in May, its highest level since World War II before beginning to decline again.
Total alcohol sales outside bars and restaurants increased by 24 percent*, and restaurants lost $120 billion in sales* during the first three months of the pandemic alone.
Airplane ticket sales and hotel occupancy declined precipitously as travel lost more than $500 billion*. And revenue from movie theater ticket sales in the U.S. is projected to drop by 80 percent* to a 40-year low.
Rentals of caps and gowns* for commencement exercises undoubtedly took a big hit as did rentals of prom dresses and tuxes*. Meantime, the average amount of time adults spent staring at our screens increased from four to six hours a day*, and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime saw a 50 percent* boost in subscribers.
Given the pandemic’s quantifiable impact on every area of American life throughout the year, maybe we should simply affix a single asterisk to 2020* wherever it appears. Or, better yet, to make it clear just what we think of 2020*, perhaps we should use the asterisks more suggestively by writing it as 2*20. That gives a better sense of the kind of f***ing year it’s been.