In times of crisis, sports can be more than just a game. Some see sports as trivial; athletes are overpaid, they say, and the score doesn’t matter. I’d ask those people to say the same after listening to 20,000 proud Bostonians singing the national anthem before the Bruins game last Wednesday or watching the Red Sox play a game with “Boston” written on the backs of their jerseys, sacrificing individual pride for citywide solidarity. And how can we criticize the diehard fans at Yankee Stadium when they sing Boston anthem “Sweet Caroline” to support their greatest rival in its moment of need?
During the Boston bombing and in its aftermath, President Obama addressed the nation twice. Lawmakers sent letters to the FBI and opined on concerns such as whether or not the suspects should be read their Miranda rights. In contrast, professional sports focused its attention exclusively on its capacity to put smiles back on the faces of those whose lives had been invaded by fear.
But why should we be surprised? This recurs frequently in sports history. Sometimes it occurs immediately after tragedy strikes, while other times the passage of time makes a return to the game all the more special. The image of the first Yankees game after 9/11 was unforgettable. One week after the towers came down, it was a baseball game that gave New York its first chance for optimism. “We go places; they either love you or hate you,” Yankees closer Mariano Rivera said. “This time was different. This time, everybody was basically almost cheering for us.” I remember watching the first game the New Orleans Saints played in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. More than a year after the storm breached the levees, football was finally back where it belonged. It was a powerful message to the world that The Big Easy’s collective ordeal was drawing to a close.
The list goes on. After the Columbine High School massacre, the school’s first football game was a critical moment of healing for the community. Going even further back, after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt personally authorized the continuation of the baseball season as a much-needed distraction from World War II.
Getting back to business on the field, court or ice repairs the punctures in our communal fabrics after a tragedy. Watching teams compete after episodes of violence reminds us that human beings are capable of channelling our energy toward nonviolent endeavors where most, if not all, participants play by the rules, and that winning and losing only matter if they are done with grace and respect. Last Monday, the Tsarnaev brothers rejected this paradigm. They sought a sick and twisted victory without regard to rules.
In sports, such a victory is none at all. Playing sports is a way to sustain human competition in a manner that replaces violence. In sports, we exchange a weapon for a tennis racket, hockey stick or baseball bat. We try to win, but not at all costs.
This isn’t to say that sports are always important. They are not. The daily wins, trades, points and goals fail to consistently provide meaning deeper than the quotidian. There are moments, however, when nothing but sports will suffice. Times when the team’s communal rallying point becomes self-referential in a way that moves beyond merely who is on the other side of the ball and revitalizes — if only for a short moment — our sense of resolve, worth and common purpose.