Sport is a realm of passion that burns white hot for what we love but is so volatile it can morph into icy bitterness and even hatred. When the team or player we love is threatened, mistreated, or defeated, we rise to the defense with vigor, but we are just as likely to turn on them if they disappoint us often enough. While there are plenty of instances of violence and verbal abuse to serve as evidence of this, most of us don’t delve much into that world of sports-related hatred. Most of us take the more passive, embittered route.
This week I ran smack into my own sports bitterness, and it was an unhappy collision. I love the Minnesota Timberwolves and have since 1989 when the team was born. In 1995 Kevin McHale, the Minnesota native and former Boston Celtics great, took over operation of the team. To make a long, 13-year story very short, McHale, whose now the head coach of the Houston Rockets, ruined the Timberwolves as a team, and I resented him. When he was removed from his position in 2008 I actually cheered out loud and did a little happy dance. I was thrilled to see him gone, I didn’t particularly care what happened to him, and I didn’t think anything of it. After all, the world of sports is the one place we can freely despise people and it’s OK, right?
It’s easy to think that way until real life intersects with sports and offers the harshest of reminders that all that bitterness is but a petty waste of emotion. Last Saturday McHale lost his 23-year-old daughter, Sasha, to lupus. When I read this news I felt simultaneously heartbroken for a fellow father facing such devastation and guilty that this was the first time I had ever considered McHale as a “father,” or even “human.” Never once in all my wishes that McHale would lose his job or my mutterings about that bleepity-blanking so-and-so had I even considered his family—or whether he even had one. And here I stood face-to-face with my own pettiness in the face of his pain. I had let my passion for a game dehumanize me.
We are masters at rationalizing and compartmentalizing. We can think and say what we want about others so long as it’s in a competitive context. Sports figures don’t count as people when it comes to insults and anger. It is this sort of stilted, broken thinking that edges us toward sub-humanity. We give ourselves license to treat others as less than human and thus become less ourselves. Must it take the death of a young woman to rattle and rouse us? For me it did. Kevin McHale, a man, a grieving father. This reality is deeper than any feelings of ill will based on a game. Sadly, though, humanity is a reality we too often forget for the sake of our petty sports passions.