Despite being just a game, sports (and more specifically the five major sports) are a very important part of our social fabric. The attitude of an entire city can be defined by the attitude of the athletes on the field. The athletes on the field and the team adopts the attitude of the city. Philadelphia is a blue-collar, steak and potatoes, get back up after getting knocked down kind of town. So it is no surprise that the expectation of fans in the city is that the teams on the field adopt this mentality. Players with skill that excel without effort are often ostracized in this city (exhibit A., Mike Schmidt). The city identifies with the team and team identifies with the city. The Yankees are pretentious and most of us in Philadelphia believe all five boroughs of New York City are as well. The baseball team’s identity is associated with the city that it lives within.
This close civic connection between sports, the city, and the people therein can be a connection defined by pride in the team and the players, or shame in the performance or the players manner of acting on and off the field. When something exciting, uplifting, gut-wrenching, disappointing, or unbelievable happens between the lines, the collective “We” feel it as much as the athletes on the field. When the Eagles lose on Sunday, a general pall is cast upon the Philadelphia area on Monday. When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, “We” won the World Series. When Joe Carter hit the series-winning home run in game six in 1993, “We” all felt the same weight and heartbreak as Mitch Williams as we watched the ball sail over the left-center field fence. While I can only speak specifically for Philadelphia, fans in other cities no doubt feel the same about their teams, especially in the Northeast and Midwest where sports teams are tied so closely to the city’s culture. In these regions, these teams are our identities. Players will come and go, but we the fans will always remain. It’s about the old cliche’, the name on the chest, not the back of the shirt.
Sports provides much more than entertainment. Sports can be a means in which to help a community heal. When the tragic events of 9-11 occurred, baseball and football took a break to allow the nation time to mourn and pick up the pieces. However, by the coming weekend, the nation turned its eyes to New York as the Yankees, fighting for a playoff spot, took to the field in the first moment post 9-11 that we as a nation could feel normal again. In Philadelphia, being in Veterans Stadium after baseball’s resumption to watch the Phillies take on the Braves, it was about so much more than two teams squaring off in September. It was about being resilient. It was about looking fear straight in the eyes and refusing to blink. I remember sitting at the Vet, dangling an American Flag over the railing in front of me, looking in amazement at the thousands of other American flags in the stadium. It was an act of defiance. It wasn’t about the Phillies beating the Braves or Scott Rolen taking a ball deep, it was about healing as a person, as a family, as a community, and as a nation.
All too often over the course of the past decade, we have faced national tragedies on such a frequent basis that they no longer shock our conscious like they once did. When the shooting at Columbine High School occurred, our nation was stunned into silence. When acts more heinous than that occur today, aside from the news cycle, featuring pundits and politicians quibbling over whose shoulders the blame of the tragedy rests upon,we are no longer surprised and barely miss a beat in our day to day lives. Sports, however, can be a means in which to unify, honor, and remember. In the days and weeks that followed the bombing in Boston, each stadium and arena in North American professional sports played tribute to those that were maimed, but more importantly, fans across the sport honored the entire city and those residents whose lives were frayed in the tenuous days that followed the bombing. For just one moment, even New Yorkers stood behind Boston in a show of solidarity that said, “we may be enemies between these lines, but outside of these lines we are brothers, sisters, Americans.”
Sadly this week, we as a nation once again got to partake in the ritual of using sports to heal our collective wounds as another tragedy, this time in Orlando, has given us the opportunity to come together as fans to remember those lost and those that had their lives irreversibly damaged by the actions of evil. This week during baseball games, Copa America, and MLS matches, we come together to pay tribute using sports as a medium for solidarity. Sports are merely a game. However, there are no other institutions that exist that serve as a mechanism to unite Americans, regardless of race, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, or political beliefs better than sporting events. This week, once again, we turn to sports to guide us back to normalcy as a nation while uniting us against those who try so hard to divide us and instill fear in us. While we all unite with Orlando, helping their community come to grips with another senseless American tragedy, it’s time again as a nation to stand strong, to once again look fear dead in the eyes, and say together that we will not be afraid. We will never be broken. We will always overcome.