Sports and Tragedy: Good Grief?

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By Avi Goldberg, Featured Contributor,  All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC. — Last month, following the NFL’s acknowledgments of the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide in Kansas City and the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, media commentators took time to prayers to newtown fansassess the place of sports in relation to real life human tragedies. Is it helpful, it was asked, to play on and to use sports as an activity to help citizens cope with the horrors they’ve witnessed, or is it better to push sports to the sidelines and to encourage participation in true practices of grieving loss? Both history and responses to recent events show how sports create meaningful, if imperfect, forums for community healing during periods of societal crisis.

Dating back to the Second World War, and including such incidents as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Columbine shootings, US sports leagues have a long history of resuming competition just a few short days after the occurrence of a crisis. Responding favourably to gameday innovations such as the singing of the national anthem (done for the first time during WW2), discounted tickets for spectators, and ceremonies honoring both victims and heroes, most fans, coaches, and players have come to view sports as helping to generate needed feelings of normalcy in the midst of a tragedy.

The trend of quick returns to the field of play was not broken until the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001. As lasting memories of a backlash against the NFL’s resumption following Kennedy’s death combined with security concerns and player opposition to playing, then Commissioner Paul Tagliabue decided to delay the start of the football schedule by one week. When football and baseball games did return, leagues, teams, and TV networks all felt a heightened responsibility to help fans cope with the emotional dislocation that they were experiencing. Regular season and playoff baseball games in New York, as well the 2002 Super Bowl played in New Orleans, were particularly poignant affairs in this regard.

Fans tuning into sports after 9/11 saw tributes to New York City and to its heroes embedded within the traditional rhythm of the games. They witnessed the bravado of President George W. Bush refusing to accept a security escort when throwing out the first pitch of the first game played at Yankee Stadium during the World Series. They also couldn’t miss an impressive stream of celebrity performances that were choreographed to preserve the memories of the victims. Sports presentations following 9/11 were visual spectacles that aimed to lift the spirits of the fans and the nation.

Underpinning the images and messages of hope, there are additional dynamics that help to explain how sports and games assist with healing during social disruption and loss.

First, in an historical time period during which many people experience tenuous connections to their communities, sports teams enable the kind of identification to places that was once provided by neighborhoods and traditional religions. The sheer popularity of sports will bring masses of people together in shared spaces, but it is the grounding in specific geographic or imagined communities provided by teams that lays the foundation for the comfortable participation of sports in local practices of grief when tragedy strikes.

Giants Falcons Football
(AP Photo/Rich Addicks)

So, just as Yankees and Mets games served as opportunities for New Yorkers to begin the process of regenerating the confidence they needed to rebuild their city after the 9/11 attacks, the involvement of a New York Giants football player in Newtown appeared not as a PR gimmick, but as the flowing of empathy between a big city and the residents of a suburb who share a conduit of intimacy via community loyalty to a team.

Second, while it is often said that watching or playing sports is good because it enables temporary escape from conditions that are hard to bear, the altered script of sports productions following tragedy actually pushes fans to confront troubling events head on. The resulting communication about a crisis helps prepare fans to accept, and be ready for, life that eventually must go on.

So, it’s true that the more shallow TV treatments of the Belcher murder-suicide provided none of the take-action narratives that were omnipresent after 9/11, but there were also impressive media interventions that challenged fans to grapple with the realities of violence in society and sports. In these examples, sports were not a distraction. Rather, sports forums were involved in the healing by engaging the public with questions about what happened and what could be done to ensure that the tragic events wouldn’t happen again.

Finally, whether it is in a stadium, a living room, over the airwaves, or on social media, the social dynamics of fandom foster group solidarities and the sharing of emotion that are needed by people going through a serious disruption in their lives. Sports bring bodies and minds together, and it is the very same sense of group unity, feelings of awe, and belief in a shared purpose experienced during the convergences of sports fans that allow for healing after the loss of human life.

(Photo by REUTERS / Richard Carson)
(Photo by REUTERS / Richard Carson)

So, when players and fans combined symbols of sports with practices of grief after Newtown, these gestures were effective because the physical and emotional togetherness engendered by their involvement with football were appropriately translatable and vital when they needed to remember and mourn the innocent dead.

Although it’s clear from the above how sports can contribute to community grieving after tragedy, mourning through sports can harm as well as help.

What happens, for example, when the discussion of a relatively rare crisis like Newtown has the unintended effect of helping fans forget about innocent victims of day-to-day violence that mostly stays hidden from public view? Or, though the NFL was praised for its sensitive treatment of Newtown, it has also been asked whether a sports league that glorifies aggression on the field can speak with a credible voice on violence in American society? It’s not easy to confront how sports can both reflect and hide a society’s social ills, but given this reality, it’s important to continuously scrutinize the relationship between the constructive and destructive consequences of grieving through sports.

Even acknowledging the seriousness of its downside, the potential of sports to help communities unite and heal following a tragedy cannot be denied. With so much supporting evidence, it’s curious that George Bush asked Americans to help the nation heal from 9/11 by supporting the economy and returning to the shopping malls when, as a sports fan, he should have known to encourage his fellow citizens to catch a ball game instead.

Follow me on Twitter @AviGoldberg