Paul Newberry column: Time for sports to help us heal again

Last modified: 4/20/2013 12:33:26 AM
In so many ways, sports can bring out the worst in us.

The corruption. The greed. The destructive belief that winning isn’t just the only thing, but something that must be achieved no matter the cost.

Then, there are times like these.

While Boston was locked down yesterday, as authorities hunted for a suspect in the deadly bombing at what was supposed to be a joyous 26.2-mile run through the city’s streets, we’ve already seen the cathartic effect of something so mundane as a hockey game.

Thousands of strangers, singing along in unison to the national anthem, when the Bruins took the ice just two nights after those cowards killed three innocent people at the Boston Marathon – one of them an 8-year-old child – and ripped off the legs of others.

Did anyone who saw that rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” not, at the very least, dab at their eyes for a moment, a sense of pride and defiance bubbling up in their chest?

Sports gives us our sense of community in times of grief. It’s like our collective couch, helping to soothe our national pain.

“What people look for in sports in a moment of crisis is a sense of security,” said John Smith, who teaches classes on the history of sports and its impact on society at Georgia Tech. “You’re going to games with people who are going through the same thing you are. There’s kind of a safety there. It feels good to have a sense of normalcy.”

We’ve seen it many times before.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, baseball carried on with President Roosevelt’s blessing and helped deflect a nation’s attention from the horrors of World War II. After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the games we play sent a resolute message that a nation would not give in to anyone’s despicable agenda.

And now, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, we’ll again call on sports to help bring out the best in us.

Rest assured, it’s up to the task.

“Sports really are the most visible place where people can come together outside of churches,” Smith said. “And, let’s face it, arenas are bigger than most churches. I can think of no other place where so many people come out to show their support for people who are grieving, who have lost something, who are going through tragedy. The stadium is a place of congregation.”

Boston’s grieving is still in the early stages. That was quite apparent yesterday when much of the city was brought to a halt by the search for one person.

The Red Sox were forced to postpone the opener of their series against the Kansas City Royals because the city’s transportation system was shut down and people were urged to stay home, all in hopes of flushing out the 19-year-old suspect. The Bruins, after playing Wednesday, called off their contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But, very shortly, the games will resume in Beantown, perhaps as soon as today.

A city, a nation, a world will be the better for it.

“We’re all looking forward to the next home game at Fenway Park,” Smith said.

While we’re at it, here’s hoping the impact of this terrible week will be more lasting than past tragedies. Sports fans – short for fanatics, as we’ve seen far too many times – should use this as another learning moment, an opportunity to permanently tone down the hateful rhetoric that too often rules in our stadiums, on sports talk radio, and throughout the internet.

There’s nothing wrong with being a passionate supporter of the home team, as long as everyone remembers it’s just a game. Frankly, we’re not holding our breath on that one. Memories fade. The vitriol returns. But maybe, just maybe, the next time a Yankees fan wants to pour a beer over the head of a Red Sox rival – or vice versa – there will be a flicker of how they came together in the wake of 9-11, how they were united again after the Boston Marathon tragedy.

That’s the most amazing thing about sports.

Roosevelt recognized the importance of baseball after America was plunged into a world at war. The easier path would’ve been to shut down, as many of the world’s top sporting events did at the time. The Indianapolis 500 wasn’t held from 1942-45. The Olympics were called off in both 1940 and ’44. The Masters was canceled the last three years of the war.

But, when baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis went to the president for guidance on what course the national pastime should take, Roosevelt responded with his famous “green light letter.”

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Roosevelt wrote.

Of course, there have been times when the games should not have gone on.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle decided to let teams play the Sunday after President Kennedy was assassinated. The decision was roundly criticized as insensitive to a grieving nation and would go down as the worst call of Rozelle’s long, successful career.

In 1972, International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage thought he was doing the right thing by ordering the Munich Games to carry on after a horrific terrorist attack wiped out the Israeli team. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

But, when handled with sensitivity, the decision on whether to play or not to play can have a profoundly positive impact.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, the NFL, Major League Baseball and college football all shut down for a week, a call that was undoubtedly influenced by Rozelle’s misstep nearly four decades earlier.

When the games resumed, it wasn’t just the right thing to do, but downright necessary to help the nation start moving forward again.

Ten days after the attack, baseball returned to New York with a poignant game at Shea Stadium. More than 41,000 turned out to watch the Mets beat the Atlanta Braves, essentially thumbing the Big Apple’s nose at the terrorists.

“This is the way life gets back to normalcy,” then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said at the time. “You can’t just concentrate on the tragedy.”

Boston has already received a dose of that healing salve.

It needs a lot more.

We’ll all be the better for it.


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