It can feel strange, trite even, to turn on the TV and watch a baseball game or go to an arena to see a hockey game after what happened in Boston Monday. Do sports really matter in the face of such tragedy? Is there value in investing time in sporting events when there is so much real, serious, and recent pain in the background?
Maybe a story of sports and another tragedy will help answer those questions. Buster Olney, a baseball columnist and broadcaster for ESPN, recounted on a recent podcast what happened in New York after 9/11. After the collapse of the Twin Towers, many New York Yankees players thought about calling it quits for the season. They felt the game had lost meaning and might be an insult to New Yorkers since it is just that, a game. But during rescue and cleanup efforts, several players were invited to a shelter for families of victims and the missing. The players felt so inadequate and out of place. What did they have to offer to those who had lost so much? It was only after All-Star outfielder Bernie Williams offered a hug to a distraught woman and saw how her shoulders lifted and her eyes lit up that the players began to recognize what a difference they could make to the people of New York.
Sports matter because they offer people a break mentally and emotionally. It is not mere escapism; it is rest. In the podcast, Olney went on to describe how first-responders at Ground Zero would collapse around TVs to catch a Yankees or Mets game and how much they valued those three-hour respites.
Sports do matter in the aftermath of tragedy because they bring people together within a community. Movies, music, and books don’t connect people to one another like sports can through playing together or rooting for the home team.
Sports matter because they can even connect rival communities and fans. As Marvin Olasky noted earlier this week, Yankees fans participated in a well-known Boston tradition by singing a rollicking version of “Sweet Caroline” Tuesday night. A small gesture, yes, but one that showed the joining of two cities marked by tragedy, putting aside their bitter rivalry and becoming allies for one night, at least.
Sports matter because there is almost no other avenue for such public displays of support. This week fans at sporting events all over the country held up signs at games encouraging the people of Boston. A hockey player used his skates as a billboard to say, “Pray for Boston.” The Chicago Tribune sports section offered a full statement of unanimity with Boston. And rarely will you hear a crowd join in the national anthem quite like Boston fans did at Bruin’s hockey game Wednesday night (see video clip below).
Sports are a gift. Not an ultimate one. Not a salvific one. But a gift nonetheless, and one that offers much in times of pain and trouble.