The power of sports to unite never had been clearer
In many ways, it was a typical Mike Piazza home run.
The power-hitting catcher caught up with a fastball on the outer half of the plate and launched a mammoth blast into the New York night.
The crowd erupted.
This partly was because the home run gave the Mets a 3-2 lead in their eventual win over the first-place Atlanta Braves in this mid-September game—a critical hit and victory as they tried to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. But that wasn’t the primary reason for the level of passion in the fans’ reaction.
The date was September 21, 2001. The game was the first played in New York after the terrorist attacks of September 11.
New York needed a release. And standing just about nine miles away from Ground Zero, Piazza provided it.
There were myriad reasons for games to be postponed or canceled across multiple sports in the days after September 11. Logistics, travel, and safety concerns aside, the national mood wouldn’t allow it. It just didn’t feel right.
'You just have to use sensitivity and good judgment,” then-Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig told The New York Times after calling off games that had been scheduled for September 11. “We are a social institution that needs to be not only responsible but hopefully helpful as we move forward. So we'll do what's not in our best interest but in the best interests of this country, whatever that is. Right now I'm in shock. I don't have a timetable.''
Major League Baseball ultimately postponed six days worth of games, while the NFL and NCAA played no football games over the weekend following the attack. Major League Soccer, golf, NASCAR, the Canadian Football League, and even the UEFA Champion’s League in Europe all postponed or canceled events.
The NFL had, in some respects been here before. The league, 38 years earlier, had made the much-criticized decision to play its full slate of weekend games in the days following the assassination of President Kennedy.
“We had to pause and make sure everyone had our priorities straight,” former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue told Fox Sports in an interview around the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. “[We had to] make sure we understood how unified we needed to be, understand where we were at.”
In other words, sports knew its place in the days immediately following the travesty. And sports also knew its place in days and weeks that followed as Americans tried to find some semblance of normalcy. Sports helped to provide that.
This shouldn’t be surprising.
Sports fosters community in the best of times. Tailgates, Super Bowl parties, March Madness pools, trips to the game with family and friends, and victory parades all are evidence of this—as is the begrudging respect given by fans to the opposing team’s best players.
But during difficult times, humans naturally feel an even greater need to congregate, to seek and provide support in one another. This is particularly true of groups who share a common interest or outlook.
“Social identity theory states that we organize ourselves into groups as a vital part of our self-esteem,” says psychologist Joy Bustrum, a professor in the Department of Graduate Psychology at Azuza Pacific University. “We define ourselves and sort a world full of overwhelming stimuli by deciding which people are like us (in-groups) and which people are not like us (out-groups).”
In many cultures there exist rituals to help those in mourning. These often include friends and family members keeping those who are grieving company for a set or indefinite period of time, ensuring they have support and are never alone.
“This act has two immediate benefits,” George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, told The New York Times. “It tells the bereaved that they are not alone in their pain and that they have a place—indeed it reaffirms that place—in the broader community.”
This is particularly important when one considers the connection between social rejection and physical pain and well-being. There are further benefits to rituals and actions designed to bring people together. For when a tragedy or natural disaster strikes, people can feel a sense of helplessness. Congregating assuages this, making common the existence of candlelight vigils and services honoring those lost.
“Although the specific rituals used to cope with losses vary widely from culture to culture, our results suggest that a common psychological mechanism both underlies these different rituals and explains their effectiveness,” say Harvard Business School professors Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2013. “Engaging in rituals mitigates grief by restoring the feelings of control that are impaired by both life-changing (the death of loved ones) and more mundane (losing lotteries) losses.”
Sports already brings together those with shared interests. So its impact—being among tens of thousands of fans of the team or game—only is accentuated in times of emotional strife.
Several years after 9/11, during the Iraq war, I was in an editorial meeting where one editor spoke about coaches and athletes overusing “war” and “soldiers” as descriptors of games and players. And indeed, it wasn’t uncommon to hear athletes muse “we’re going to war out there today” before a game. The editor asserted, quite reasonably, that it’s absurd to compare a game and its players to actual war and the men and women fighting in it.
While agreeing with the sentiment, I also saw it more as escapism. Very little is important in this world when measured against issues such as war, poverty, crime, and genocide. That’s reality. Which is why sports can be so powerful. It allows us into its world, where the question of whether the catcher applied the tag before the runner’s foot slid across the plate really is the most important question in that world at that particular moment. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
So one goes to a game, looking for that escapism, and is presented with protest and politics. It’s easy to see how that would be a turn-off; consider the wildly varied reactions to Colin Kaepernick et al refusing to stand for the national anthem, or to WNBA players honoring the Black Lives Matter movement.
But then when one goes to a game, hurting just like everyone else in the crowd, and something astonishing happens within that world, it’s magic.
So what is the social responsibility of sports? Do our athlete role models have an obligation to use their voice, platform, and resources to affect positive change, to try to address and better some difficult situation?
Or should they just be quiet and entertain us with their skills and talents?
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"][Sports'] impact—being among tens of thousands of fans of the team or game—only is accentuated in times of emotional strife.[/quote]
Fifteen years removed from 9/11, sports finds itself wrestling with this question. And there might not be an easy answer.
But on one September night in 2001 at Shea Stadium in Flushing, N.Y., as we suffered through what arguably was the worst week of our collective lives, Mike Piazza allowed New Yorkers and sports fans everywhere, just for a little while, to not worry about it.
“I’m glad to give people a diversion from the sorrow, to give them a thrill.”
That’s sports at its best.