Can sports still help us heal?

By Aaron Leibowitz1--gUfsNCv5pXzO5yfCC64vA(AP)

(This piece was originally published at The Cauldron via SI.com: https://thecauldron.si.com/can-sports-still-help-us-heal-4cc8af5df026#.ftobtlwhx)

A week ago Sunday, NFL stadiums around the country observed a moment of silence before kickoff to honor the 129 victims of the Paris terrorism attacks, the deadliest incidents in France since World War II. During that moment at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, one fan decided to howl, “Muslims suck!”

The words shattered the silence like a stone through glass, plain for 80,000 people in the stadium to hear, and clearly captured for those at home. It was a shameful moment, and not one we should easily choose to dismiss as mindless drunk-football-fan drivel.

In a harrowing way, it was perfect, as suspicion and open hatred directed at Muslims is this nation’s current elephant in the room. It’s the feeling fueling the actions of more than half of the nation’s governors, who refuse to welcome Syrian refugees. It’s the attitude that is triggering the vandalizationof mosques across the country. It’s the twisted logic that leads news anchorsto press a Muslim civil rights activist to accept responsibility for the Paris attacks — which is analogous to plucking a Christian-American off the street and asking him to accept responsibility for the behavior of the Ku Klux Klan.

That growing public sentiment is why it was so significant for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers — the league’s reigning MVP — to call out that misguided fan, unprompted, after the game.

“I must admit that I was very disappointed with whoever the fan was who made a comment that I thought was really inappropriate during the moment of silence,” Rodgers said. “It’s that kind of prejudicial ideology that, I think, puts us in the position that we’re in today as a world.”

We’ve heard the phrase “sports help us heal” so many times that it has almost become cliché. Baseball helped New York heal after 9/11. Football helped New Orleans heal after Hurricane Katrina. Soccer will help Parisheal.

Sports are a distraction, a marker of normalcy, a space to come together and, in a terrifying world, remind ourselves we’re not alone. When sporting venues become targets, as was the case in Paris, the mere act of gathering inside one can symbolize the refusal to be ruled by fear and hate.

But if fans believe they can go unchecked when they denigrate a religion of 1.6 billion people inside a stadium of 80,000, then is that stadium really a place for healing? Would a Muslim-American have felt safe — or even beensafe — that day at Lambeau Field?

For sports to help us heal in a way that truly brings people together, the spaces that the games inhabit need to be welcoming and supportive for everyone. That includes the majority of Packers fans (who, based on Wisconsin’s demographics, are mostly white and Christian). It also includes servicemen and women, veterans, police officers and firefighters. Sports teams do a fine job of serving both of those constituencies. But the atmosphere should also be supportive for marginalized groups, those who we’ve been taught deserve our scorn before our compassion, those who many of us scapegoat when we become angry and scared.

Ryan Tannehill greets members of the military before the Cowboys-Dolphins game on Sunday. (AP)

 

The problem is, leagues and teams shudder at the thought of supporting just about anything that could be seen as challenging the status quo. Neither the Packers nor the NFL released a statement in response to the fan’s anti-Muslim comment, even though millions of fans heard it at home, as evidenced by a video uploaded to YouTube by the league’s official account. Reaction was similarly nonexistant last year regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, even as athletes across sports wore supportive t-shirts and did “hands up, don’t shoot” gestures in solidarity.

Teams and leagues don’t respond because the status quo is built into what they’re selling. The military, we now know, has paid the NFL (and MLB, the NBA, NHL and MLS) for propaganda spots. But even beyond that, the military is part and parcel of the NFL’s brand. Anything but total support for its actions and, by extension, the actions of the United States, would undercut both a major sponsor and the league’s core values.

The result is that the sports-industrial complex allows for certain types of healing — they often involve military flyovers and chants of “U-S-A!” — but offers little in the way of imagining new paths forward. In this case, sports will not leave much room for an approach that leads us away from war and toward the apparently radical notion that “Muslims” are not the enemy. Athletes like Rodgers might take a stand; the sports establishment will not.


I often think about the role that baseball played in New York after 9/11. As a Mets fan, Mike Piazza’s go-ahead home run in the first game after the attacks stands out. And then there was President George W. Bush’s ceremonial first pitch at the World Series at Yankee Stadium.

I still get chills watching this. As a kid in New York at the time, I was upset and scared out of my goddamn mind. Watching the president throw a perfect strike (while wearing a bulletproof vest) was, somehow, comforting.

But Bush saw the pitch as much more than an act of healing. He saw it as an act of aggression. In fact, he viewed the pitch much like he viewed the ensuing invasion of Iraq: as a giant “eff you” to the planet’s Axis of Evil.

“I probably knew, instinctively, that a bounce would kind of reduce the defiance — the act of defiance toward the enemy,” Bush told Grantland’s Louisa Thomas earlier this year. Whether Americans knew it or not, the pitch was designed to drum up support for war.

It’s at these moments, when we’re at our angriest and most vulnerable, that earnest attempts to commemorate and heal can be exploited to promote the exact things we should be fighting against. Fourteen years later, the decisions made in the wake of a tragedy — decisions driven more by wrath and dread than by love and logic — continue to haunt us. “Muslims suck” isn’t just a stupid thing to say; it’s a reckless foreign policy approach, one that has only served to fan the flames of the problem at hand.

In the tensest of times, we’ve been taught to use sports as a way to clear our heads and get back to our regular routines. That method might work just fine if the world stopped turning while we were trying to heal. Instead, the world spins faster, fear and hate spread like wildfire, and the games that are supposed to bring us solace can lead us further down a dangerous path.

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