Hooliganism. Jingoism. Racism. Sexism. Unrestrained capitalism.
All of these societal ills can be — and have been — byproducts of the phenomenon we call sports. (Or ‘sport,’ if you’re European. Guess it sounds more dignified that way. I’ll keep the ‘s.’)
Indeed, the entity that stokes our passion more than most things in this life can also draw out our basest instincts. Or, maybe sports simply provide a prism through which we see the true nature of being human, amplifying both benefits and drawbacks in equal measure.
Perhaps this is more a self-preservation mechanism for me than anything else, but even after two decades of following sports and a decade of working in and around the sports industry, I still view the entire conceit as a positive.
Speaking from my own perspective alone, not only has sports given me an interesting, challenging career, it’s enhanced my very existence.
It’s been said — including on this very website! — that travel cures racism because it makes one realize the shared humanity on all corners of our globe.
Although sports can be used by bad actors as a lever to pry us apart from our brothers and sisters from different backgrounds, I believe that those of us acting in good faith can and should experience sports as a unifying force, just as impactful as physically moving oneself into another culture.
For me, the globalizing effect of sports took hold early.
Turn the clock back 20 years, to when I first started following Pittsburgh pro teams. The Penguins were led by superstar Jaromír Jágr and a cadre of talented Czech players, from Martin Straka and Robert Lang to Jiří Šlégr and Jan Hrdina. The Pirates featured the energizing presences of young Latin American prospects José Guillén and Aramis Ramírez. The Steelers were powered by the complementary abilities of two African-American stars in the backfield: Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis.
Just by merit of cheering for the Black and Gold, I was incentivized to view people from other walks of life as my brothers. In fact, I found myself more drawn toward the athletes whose backgrounds were different than mine.
There are few pastimes that would’ve had that powerful of an effect on a young person in his formative years. Sports had already made me a more empathetic, diversity-appreciating person in that way, even before I entered adulthood.
And then there’s my aforementioned Career In Sports(TM), which I feel has only added to the we-are-the-world mentality spawned in me at an early age.
Just in the past several years, I’ve interviewed and/or worked alongside sportsmen and sportswomen from Canada (a lot of them), Finland, Sweden, Russia, Senegal, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Cape Verde, France, South Korea, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Scotland, England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Jamaica, Croatia, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Australia.
It’s one thing to root for someone to succeed; it’s another to actually converse with that person face-to-face and try to understand where that person is coming from on a basic human level.
I’ve even talked to members of the Philadelphia Flyers and I’m pretty sure they actually weren’t demonic beasts hatched from Lucifer’s fetid womb. Crazy!
Can international sporting events be used by politicians and extremists to make the opponent into ‘the other?’ Of course. Can lucrative pro sports create more disparity of income in our society and alienate the working-class fan? Absolutely. Can competition give another excuse to look for differences among the genders and races, as opposed to commonalities? Yes, sir and/or ma’am.
But anything humans do will naturally contain some unsavory aspects. That’s not a reason to abandon or besmirch something altogether.
Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s on us as sports fans and workers to protect our world from those forces than might befoul it.
Let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good. I’ve seen sports described as ‘the toy department of life.’ Immersing in sports is a modern luxury, for sure, but it’s also an avenue toward greater appreciation for our fellow humans.
It’s not a blowout all the time, but sports is an overall win according to this scorekeeper.
You may now return to screaming at the television screen while furiously scrolling through social media. Oh, is that just my typical sports viewing experience? My bad.