THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Sean Gough
Vice-Chairperson of the Board of Directors
"Both teams on the gridiron that night decided to stop playing. Fans of both teams joined each other in prayer, putting aside rooting interests to comfort one another as they shed tears. Humanity dug into their pockets and turned a fundraiser Hamlin had established for his charity into a remarkable story of its own: what was once an attempt to raise a couple hundred dollars [has] approach[ed] $10,000,000 ...
But why does the world need a situation like this to wake up? Why does a man need to innocently brush against death for the population to see there is a problem with this entertainment cycle? ...
This is not a call for legislation that forces humanity to behave a certain way ... This is a request that individuals think deeply and critically about the decisions made each day in the name of entertainment. At what point will we reach the determination that football is too violent? ... Will it require someone to perish in battle while millions watch in horror? If football changes, will a less violent version of the game keep the same entertainment value and hold the attention of its audience?"
Answering these questions (from last month's post) in the wake of Damar Hamlin's injury at the Buffalo Bills-Cincinnati Bengals game would require at least a few changes:
1. Sports leagues need to regard their fans as more than consumers.
While they hemmed and hawed over whether or not to postpone the game, it appeared the NFL's leadership (not the on-field officials) showed how out of touch they were, as they were forced into the right choice by backlash from their constituents. Accounts claim they badly underestimated the character not only of the guys on the field, who refused to resume after a near-tragedy, but the fans around the world who were united in grief and support for Damar Hamlin. And through the lens of a dim view of fans as reckless consumers who would demand another three quarters of football at all costs — rather than people capable of empathy and horror at what they had just witnessed in the middle of a game — the NFL provided one of the reasons that sportsmanship has been a tough sell: professional sports leagues apparently do not believe the fans are ready for that.
The message has been sent from the big leagues to the little leagues: the "normal" way of doing things is built on the assumption that empathy is impossible or too much to ask. Just as politicians can choose to exploit fear and ignorance to gain power instead of appealing to the "better angels of our nature" (as Abraham Lincoln put that), leagues like the NFL have conditioned fans to tolerate a degree of violence, injury to the players, and bad behavior by fans that can seem inevitable. Cynicism breeds cynicism.
But in an instant, a public shocked by Hamlin's injury proved that a better way is within reach.
2. Fans need to regard themselves as more than just fans.
One of the ways these leagues have seduced fans is by conning them into believing that rooting for a team is a noble pursuit or a bond of affection like a family. But wanting a team to win at best is amoral: unlike a family where love is shared freely and burdens are carried by everyone, the players usually have no clue who individual fans are, and the fans don't give an iota of effort relative to the players who make the game what it is.
When these illusions are stripped away, fans can understand why the agreed-upon basic ethics in society should be no different in the realm of sports than anywhere else. Imagine how outrageous that would be if a stranger confidently punched another stranger for wearing a different style of shirt or using a different brand of phone. Or imagine how ridiculous that would seem as these strangers yelled at television commercials in a bar in the belief that somehow yelling would win them their preferred shirt or phone.
Shedding childish beliefs won't destroy the mystique or the entertainment value of sports.
3. Societies need to regard and reward greatness beyond the realm of entertainment.
If the kindness shown to Damar Hamlin by millions of people demonstrates anything, it's the need to put greater value in the ordinary good deeds of the majority of the public. Giving "our better angels" a chance to thrive also requires greater respect for other areas of public life. As strange as that may seem from an organization dedicated to sportsmanship, one of the surest ways to guarantee better sportsmanship is to de-escalate the societal obsession with sports, entertainment, and celebrity.
Aside from the responses of fans, my favorite Tweets in the aftermath of the Hamlin injury were from practicing doctors who have actually saved lives, like Megan Ranney, who's an ER doctor, the incoming dean of the Yale School of Public Health, and a Buffalo native and Bills fan. For no money, Ranney offered her expertise to calmly suggest what might have happened to Hamlin while she joined everyone else in wishing him well.
And as she sent these Tweets from hundreds of miles away, many anonymous people in Cincinnati averted a tragedy as they administered CPR on the field and cared for Hamlin in the hospital. Until we reward them with eight-figure contracts and ads for sneakers and cars, another rhetorical question seems appropriate: why not just start by teaching kids to admire what they did with half the zeal that we train them to admire athletes?
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.