Rx for ugly times: Remember good ones
So now it comes to this: At a preseason football game with about as much meaning as an episode of "Jersey Shore," bullets rang out, fists flew, blood was spilled and, for a time, lives hung in the balance.
The latest dark turn in the American sporting scene unleashed itself Saturday at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, when the 49ers hosted the Oakland Raiders. Fights broke out in the stands. Two separate shooting incidents injured two separate people in the parking lot. Another man was savagely beaten in an upper-level bathroom inside the stadium.
Politicians protested. Owners reportedly promised to end the annual preseason showdown. Fans talked of fear and bad people ruining something special for good people. Comparisons, of course, were made to Bryan Stow, who five months ago was beaten within an inch of his life outside a Dodgers game.
But the image of fans by the handful turning on one another with senseless violence make this so: Somehow, some way, sports have gone from being made of what make us great to having absorbed too much of what can make us awful — the greed and anger, the violence and senseless brutality, the unbridled hatred.
There was a time, truly, when sports were more than this. When they reflected the better parts of ourselves much more often than not. The heroism in winning, the class of losing the right way, the dignity in dying with which Lou Gehrig gifted us, the belief in hope the 1980 Olympic men’s hockey team confirmed in a single game against the Russians … on and on it went.
Sports, from on high to peewee leagues, did these things and so offered us a healthy distraction from real troubles.
Was it always good, and were our athletes always good men and women? Of course not. But it is better for us and our children that sports be a fairy tale with lessons for a better world and some joy that goes with them than a horror show that reflects our darker tendencies.
Because Arthur Ashe, in his grace and goodness, was real.
Because Muhammad Ali, in his brashness and commitment to what he believed, made us better.
So did every autograph Ryne Sandberg signed when I was a kid as I watched, when even at that young age I started to grasp the graciousness of a man of fame and wealth spending hour after hour after another loss at the green fence outside Wrigley Field because every kid mattered.
The list is too long to count, and for each of us it varies, but sports were always a window to good things, lists of men and women who played with beauty or boldness, who dragged real-life lessons into their sports or imbued their sports with enough courage or greatness to allow us to feel some of it, too: Michael Jordan and Kerri Strug and Tom Watson and Wade Boggs and Emmitt Smith and Jackie Robinson and Dale Earnhardt and Magic and Bird and so, so many more.
The places mattered, too. Wrigley Field in September with a father and a brother even if the lovable losers were losers again; a game at the Garden when you leave afterward and New York has been blanketed in snow, made clean and fresh and left with that feeling that the game you’d just watched was that, too; roaring for Jack Nicklaus on a Sunday from your living room or watching George Brett chase .400 in Kansas City or going to the ballpark hoping to see Kirk Gibson do more magic.
Now what do we have?
We have fans shooting one another at games. We have bad men beating good men – and Stow, a father and paramedic, surely is a good man, a normal man, a man who should be able to go to a ballgame with his family and go home having been touched by something special.
But it’s more than that.
We have labor disputes gutting baseball in the 1990s, threatening football this past summer and looming over the NBA in the months ahead. We have Roger Clemens, who once inspired a young boy I wrote about to beat cancer, now making his mark in the courtroom.
Instead of watching Tiger Woods chase all-time greatness, we must now contemplate just how many times he chased after women who were not his wife. We watch Little League World Series games on ESPN, games in which children too young for such scrutiny cry and glare at adults, and adults sometimes seem to forget they’re coaching children.
This list has gotten too long: Investigative stories on college programs that include references to abortions and prostitutes, a fan in Alabama who allegedly poisoned the hallowed ground and trees of his rival, the hatred and racism spewed across sports message boards — the greed and the hate and the anger that, lately, has boiled over into violence.
We have fathers beating other fathers at hockey and baseball games, one college basketball player killing another and a coach looking to paint the victim as a thug, players jumping into stands hitting fans and fans turning on each other.
No, we cannot stop the thugs from hurting the innocent, and we cannot stop bad men from pulling out guns and opening fire in parking lots. Life is always a bit of a gamble, and so we cannot change the fact that now some parents out west no longer believe a baseball or football game is a safe enough bet for their children.
But we can stop and remember that sports have always, always reflected us. And right now what’s coming back in that mirror is all too often ugly.
Time to find joy again in the game. Time to shout down the hatred around us and find ways to express our rivalries with some dignity and some decency.
I have no idea how to make this happen.
Maybe it can be as simple as a reminder: People are brawling in the stands, they are shooting one another in parking lots, they are insulting each other on talk radio shows and they are swinging below the belt on message boards — all of this and more — and it has to stop.
Money has flooded into our sports, and on that there’s no going back. Our athletes are as rich and famous as they’ve ever been, and our fans are in need of distraction as much as they have been in decades. Sports have grown, evolved, morphed, just as America has with them.
But at the core is the fact they are just a game — a game capable of reflecting the better parts of us, of inspiring us, of distracting us some but hopefully never from the common sense and decency that’s supposed to define this country.
If enough of us remember that, maybe it’s a start.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.