I was sitting in the media work area of Gampel Pavilion when I saw a Vine on Twitter of the France-Germany friendly soccer match. A bomb went off in the background, the crowd gasped and the players seemed kind of stunned.
It just seemed like a weird thing to happen, from my point of view. “Oh, soccer is crazy. Maybe those French fans are just too excited with their fireworks,” I thought to myself.
When news continued to break that the explosions were due to a terrorist attack that assaulted the city, I was horrified.
But I had a job to do. My job was to cover the UConn men’s basketball team’s 100-56 victory over Maine in their season opener.
As I was sitting there, frantically trying to refresh Twitter and The New York Times amidst the awful wifi at Gampel, I couldn’t help but feel that what I was doing was utterly pointless.
In many ways, it was. The families of the victims in Paris did not care about UConn’s basketball game. But to discount the power of sports in times of tragedies is not only naïve. It is wrong.
Time and time again, the sports world has proven to be a place where communities come together. Sports represent an outlet for people to experience the full range of human emotions for something that truly does not “matter.”
Look back to the 2001 New York Yankees. Following the attacks on Sept. 11, Major League Baseball took time off. When play resumed, the city of New York rallied behind the then three time defending World Series champions.
President George W. Bush came to Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch before Game 3. He threw a perfect strike.
In a story that ran on Grantland to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the tragedy, writer Louisa Thomas wrote, “Normalcy”. After 9/11, he urged people to go shopping, to go to Disney World, to play baseball.
‘I made the case that, if you really wanted to send a message to the terrorists, get back to normal life and we’ll do the best we can to protect you,” Bush said. “And so going to a baseball game was kind of symbolic of getting back to normal life.’”
The Yankees would go on to win Games 3, 4 and 5, the latter two in walk-off heroic style. No, the Yankees did not win the World Series and no, their actions did not save any lives. But what the Yankees were able to do in October and November of 2001 made New York feel like New York again.
A similar effect was had in Boston following the marathon bombing in April 2013. The city of Boston went into a lockdown while a manhunt for the assailants was underway on April 19th. At the next Red Sox home game, David Ortiz took the microphone when a pregame remembrance ceremony. With five words, Ortiz was able to sum up the attitude the city of Boston displayed in the face of terror.
“This is our f***ing city,” he said.
The Red Sox rode the momentum of “Boston Strong” and a dominant postseason from Ortiz to capture their third World Series of the 21st century that October. In a column after the Series, Bill Simmons wrote his reflections on Ortiz’s speech.
“It was perfect,” Simmons said. “Nobody knew what to say that day. How do you sum up 237 years? How do you sum up that week? How do you sum up two evil scumbags ruining the city’s most special day? How do you show the right respect and empathy for the victims while also tapping into the spirit of the city itself? David Ortiz figured it out with five words. And he’s not even from Boston. It was amazing. Maybe Boston Strong was born earlier that week, but no. 34 gave it an exclamation point.”
Non-sports fans will always find a way to discount the way we obsess over it. And they might be right. The Mets lost the World Series two full weeks ago now. I’m nowhere near over it. I’m still bummed out and pissed that they blew three saves in five games.
But what non-sports fans need to realize is the awesome power sports have on communities. In times of chaos and tragedy, sports can be the one thing that feels right. We’ve seen it time and time before.
Paris was attacked last weekend. Paris was not defeated. One day soon, a soccer game will start and the Parisian fans will belt out the French national anthem and for a brief moment, all will feel right in the world.