The Full Nelson: Don’t tell me it’s just a game

Two years ago, the seminal moment of our young generation occurred on a Tuesday morning. It seems like a blur of pictures and emotions and phone calls now, all playing out like a worn-down film strip spinning noisily in my head. Those people jumping, the towers collapsing and everyone crying as the death toll soared. Out on the streets, it was the quietest day of my three years in Washington – no cars, no vendors, no students. Even the LaRouche people closed up shop for the day. But of the many things that stand out, I still remember hearing that sports no longer mattered.

People degraded sports before September 11 and only did so more fervently afterward. We were reminded that they were only games and we were made to feel guilty if we loved them too much. Somehow, it was construed that caring passionately about the outcome of a sporting event was insulting to the people who died, as if they were too trivial, too meaningless.

I didn’t believe that then and I don’t believe it now. Certainly the idea of athletes as heroes seems absurd. We know that comparing people who play games to people who save lives is insulting. But the idea that sports shouldn’t mean that much, the idea that we shouldn’t care too much – that is misguided and disheartening.

In the months after September 11, the country stood on unfamiliar ground, beginning a war on terror that’s definition seemed to change daily. We watched depressing story after depressing story profiling the people that died. We learned about Osama and the Taliban, and all the other “evil-doers” who were out to get us. We even started checking our mail for anthrax. And the news never seemed to get better. Then, sometime in late October, the World Series started.

In Games Four and Five, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius hit miraculous game-tying home runs, giving the city of New York a reason to celebrate when reasons were hard to find. And then the rest of the nation had reason to celebrate when the Yankees lost the series in Game Seven on Luis Gonzalez’s bloop single. I can think of no other event that was more collectively therapeutic than getting lost for three hours each night in those seven games.

Now it’s two years later, and unemployment rates are up, Iraq and Afghanistan are a mess, the primary evil-doers are still around, and most of the world hates us again, but now we need their help. Watching the news or reading a paper is just plain depressing. And like two years ago, I need a distraction. I need three hours to look forward to each week, especially when the other 165 are beating me senseless. So should I stop caring about sports? Should I try to have them play a smaller role in my life? Of course not. And that’s where the message of September 11 got skewed.

That day certainly taught us that our main priorities should be family, friends and health. But while most people thought that message minimized the importance of sports, it actually did just the opposite, because more often than not, sports act as a catalyst to those very priorities.

They bring thousands of people together on a daily basis, providing common ground for friendships to develop and families to bond. They let us shut out our own problems and concentrate on the dynamic stories developing in front of us, more real than any “reality show.” They let us be absurdly passionate on days when our jobs and lives seem devoid of that essential emotion. More than other forms of entertainment – movies, music and books – sports affect a greater number of people in a positive way during times when they really need it.

So on this second anniversary of September 11, when you think of those that died and then inevitably reflect on your own life, don’t wonder if you should really care about sports so much. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for loving “just a game.” September 11 showed us that too many things are out of our control and it’s up to us to just enjoy whatever time we have. If you’re fortunate enough to care about sports and you do get enjoyment out of these games, then don’t worry about your priorities. Don’t try to stop caring so much. Because when times are tough, there is no remedy quite like enjoying a game.

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