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Upon Further Review: Sports can be a Powerful Masking Agent

I was in the first grade on September 11, 2001. I distinctly remember my principal coming into our classroom and explaining to us what had happened in New York that morning. Of course, I wouldn’t understand the magnitude of the day until years later, but I acknowledged the significance of the unfolding events as best as a seven year old possibly could.

My other lasting image surrounding that fateful day was, of all things, a first pitch at a baseball game. When the 2001 World Series returned to Yankee Stadium after two games in Arizona, President Bush emerged from the home dugout and waved at the thousands of fans in attendance and the millions watching worldwide. Watching the video years later, I noticed that someone placed a rubber shorter than the 60 feet 6 inches from the top of the mound to home plate, to make the ceremonial first pitch easier for the Commander in Chief. Without flinching, the president marched past the “shorter rubber”, stood atop the pitcher’s mound and threw a perfect strike to home plate.

Sporting events influence the citizens of this country like no other. In our darkest hours, together as a unified nation, we are able to come together and, for a few hours, put the grief and sorrow aside to watch a game. On that cold November night in New York, we never forgot what took place two months prior. But, collectively, we were able to put the anguish aside and take a soothing, deep breath.

Coming home from college Friday afternoon, I read the countless sentiments of sadness and regret at the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Friends, parents and athletes alike voiced their grieving aloud and remarked at the tragedy of the innocent lives that were lost. As I was waiting for my plane home, I overheard a reporter make a bold comparison to the collective mourning from around the world towards the thousands of innocent lives silenced eleven years ago.

Now, just as then, this is an opportunity for prayer: prayer for the victims and their teachers, prayer for their friends and neighbors, and prayer for our loved ones everywhere. To paraphrase President Obama’s chilling words, tragedy has reared its horrifying head too many times in recent memory. Just in the past two weeks, the NFL lost two of its own in shocking fashion.

As I watched, read and listened to the story from Newtown, I could not help but wonder: why are playing sports so important in times of sorrow?

Standing in silence at Gillette Stadium Sunday Night, awaiting the Patriots’ clash with the San Francisco 49ers, I participated in one of the league wide moments of reflection during Week 15 in the National Football League. While twenty-six white flares lit up the night sky, one could feel, and sense, the deafening silence that engulfed the stadium during those chilling moments.

It was then that I acknowledged the importance of a community in times of grief. Sporting events provide said community, one that travels far beyond mere talking points in the work place, or emotions of love (or hatred) of players, coaches, teams and games. High fiving a random person after a homerun, or sitting with heads in your hands after a deciding interception, we follow sports to believe in an idea of community that goes further beyond family ties and personal traditions. When we gathered last month for Thanksgiving, football was a centerpiece among loved ones. When we toasted to our nation’s independence in July, baseball celebrated the milestone with us. When we ring in a new year, basketball and hockey partake in the festival spotlight as well.

The treasured connection between people and games was adamantly apparent during President Bush’s first pitch on that cold, autumn night in the Big Apple. The same unity was displayed on Kevin Durant’s sneakers, on the back of the New York Giants’ helmets, or on Ryan Boatright’s right cheek, along with many other commemorations from this past weekend. As fans, we look towards our favorite athletes, coaches and organizations for guidance and inspiration. To see the sports world join with the rest of our nation in grieving shows that our association with sports extends beyond the playing field.

As a nation, it is our job to rally around the community of Newtown, and maintain our devotion to the bewildered families. At every game, on every play, we extend our commitment to our teams tenfold. In the days following Friday’s tragedy, I have seen that as a nation, we have rallied through messages on signs, banners and through social media. Still, the road that town will now endure, towards restoring any sort of normalcy, is incredibly challenging. But, it is my hope that, when they are ready, they are able to do what we all did that night in the Bronx eleven years ago. Someday, I hope they can watch a sporting event, and for a few hours, take a deep, soothing breath.