Sports fans — how many times has a friend, colleague or family member told you “it’s just a game?” As someone who has had sports play a huge role in my life since I was just a boy, I lost count a long time ago.
Sports bring me peace. They provide a distraction from life’s sorrows. They bring happiness. So, don’t tell me it’s just a game, because it’s not. It’s much more than that.
On the 16th anniversary of the tragic events that unfolded across the country on Sept. 11, 2001, I can’t help but think about the ways in which sports bring us together in times of crisis and tragedy. They have become a great equalizer — a sort of healer that help mend fresh wounds, both literally and metaphorically.
The first thing that comes to mind is the way baseball was able to bring the country together following the deaths of thousands 16 years ago — since a big chunk of VCU’s student body are too young to remember, I’ll try and paint a picture.
October 30, 2001: With the Arizona Diamondbacks up two games to none, the World Series descends upon New York. Less than 50 days after 9/11, the Big Apple — and the country as a whole — are still picking up the pieces.
That night, some 55,000 baseball fans piled into historic Yankee Stadium. But this isn’t just any old baseball game. It’s not even like any World Series game before it.
Security is tight. Bomb-sniffing dogs and police officers with machine guns are scouring the premises — the president is throwing out the first pitch.
A little after 8:30 p.m., President George W. Bush walks out of the dugout, clad in a thick jacket with “FDNY” emblazoned across the back and a thick, heavy bullet-proof vest tucked underneath. There are Secret Service agents disguised as umpires up and down the baselines. Everyone is on edge.
Except for the president – who seems poised, takes a few paces, turns to the crowd and waves, instilling ease into the environment. He steps up to the mound, doesn’t hesitate and hurls a belter across the plate – right down the middle.
Throughout the stadium, 55,820 Democrats and Republicans, Diamondbacks and Yankees fans, erupt. “U-S-A! U-S-A!” the crowd chants for what feels like an eternity.
That night, we were all on the same side. As Americans. As one.
Baseball made that happen. Sports made that happen. It wasn’t “just a game,” it was so much more.
Today – 16 years later – we’re witnessing that power once again.
Following the destruction of Hurricane Harvey, a big chunk of Texas’ Gulf Coast lays in ruin. Houston is underwater. At least 70 people are dead. Thousands more are without homes, struggling to make due and keep their family safe.
Sports are seemingly the last thing on people’s minds.
But that doesn’t stop the magic of sports from bringing people together once again.
In the less-than-two weeks since Harvey walloped Eastern Texas, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has used his status and influence as a star athlete to raise nearly $30 million for hurricane victims. Nine NFL owners have committed millions of their own fortunes towards rebuilding efforts.
But it doesn’t stop at the NFL. In the NBA, soon-to-be-former Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander has donated $10 million. Superstar players like Chris Paul, James Harden, Stephen Curry and John Wall have donated hundreds of thousands.
From football to basketball, baseball to hockey, golf to auto racing – donations are being raked in by the millions.
Last weekend, as college football kicked off their season, dozens of teams wore stickers on their helmets to show solidarity with those suffering in Texas.
No matter where you look, the sporting community as a whole has helped bring people together to fight through one of the most devastating storms in modern history.
So, don’t tell me “it’s just a game.” To those left homeless across the Gulf, is Watt “just an athlete?”
No. To many, he’s a helping hand. A saving grace. A hero.
Sports teach us to push through the adversity – to come together as one and achieve the goals you set out to meet.
Legendary baseball player Hank Aaron once spoke about the power of perseverance. He was referring to baseball, but I think it’s safe to say it works for life, too.
“My motto was always to keep swinging,” he said. “Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”
Keep swinging, Houston. Just like we did 16 years ago, we’ll get through this together.