We’ve all heard those stories of famous athletes who became a public goat following a highly public sports gaffe. One of the most heinous examples was that of Colombian soccer player Andes Escobar who, during a 1994 World Cup match against the United States accidentally scored in his own goal and was murdered two weeks after returning to Colombia. While the Escobar incident is notoriously one of the most extreme examples, there have been countless examples of fans threatening to harm or even kill athletes for their shortcomings in big sports moments.
No one represents the fallen athlete in American sports as much as former Major League Baseball player, Bill Buckner. Buckner had a highly successful major league career that lasted over 20 years. He collected over 2,700 hits and even won a batting title in 1980 while playing for the Chicago Cubs. Buckner, however, is best known for missing a routine ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series at Fenway Park while a member of the Boston Red Sox.
Like many of these big time sports goats, Buckner was sent death threats and this one error came to define his career – quite unfortunate when you consider how good of a career he truly had.
It would seem as though the majority of spectators and fans of sports are stable enough to resist sending death threats to athletes or harming those who make mistakes (though attending some youth sports games can make a person begin to wonder). These extreme cases, however, do reveal a troubling characteristic with which most sports fans are forced to wrestle. Team sports has a tendency to dehumanize its participants. Athletes wear uniforms of the same color in order to set themselves apart from the other team who wear a different uniform. Spectators in the stands wear their teams’ colors. We feel camaraderie with our team. And many of the sociological traits that are present in the concept of mob mentality permeate sports venues. We feel a hyper connectivity with fellow fans. So we high five strangers after our team scores a touchdown. We scream and yell for our team to succeed. And we root against the other team.
And there happens to be a fine line between cheering for our team and rooting against the other team. You see this happen when a player gets injured. I will assume the humanity in all fans – that there is a pang of empathy for any injured player and an authentic hope that he or she is OK, but if we are completely honest, doesn’t the empathy seem to come a little more quickly when it’s one of “our” players? In this split-second pause, we are confronted by the major challenges that sports presents us.
All the time I hear aggressive parents encouraging their children to play harder and stronger and faster and . . . there is the slightest feeling that they want to take that other team – or player – “down.” Taking them down is part of the game! If we can’t all win – someone has to lose. And we’d just all assume it would be “them ” lose instead of us. And, ever so subtlety, we feel ourselves hoping, not just that we win, but that they lose. Just watch a parent when their child is playing a team with a player who is significantly better than all the other players. They can easily find themselves rooting for that player’s failure as much as their own child’s success. It’s the same feeling we get when we are playing a game when we know that it is impossible to win. Those are difficult emotions to process.
Which is one of the reasons why sports is so great. It offers us a relatively safe environment to experience these feelings of aggression and inadequacy. It offers us a playground to try out feelings and emotions that are every bit as relevant to the workplace and the real world as they are to the sports contest itself.
Throughout all of our experiences in sports – whether we are playing them or watching them – we must remember to humanize the event. While we are watching our children playing a game, it is not another team they are playing against, it is another group of boys and girls with different personalities, gifts, challenges, and experiences. Maybe that player is a jerk because his family life is in shambles. Maybe that coach is over-the-top because she struggles mightily with her self image. Maybe that parent is so boisterous because he and his wife are going through a divorce. Maybe that official made a bad call because he got fired the day before and his mind isn’t completely in the game.
It seems like a simple enough task, but our passion for sports makes remembering the humanity of the players more challenging than it seems like it would be. When our rival team hires a new coach, we don’t wonder about his family life or his off-the-field demeanor. We just don’t like him and hope he is unsuccessful. When a player from the other team takes a cheap shot on our child or one of their teammates, we don’t wonder how she does in school or whether she is loved at home – we just hope our daughter will get her back somehow.
Sports are at their best when we humanize them – when we remember that sports are created for all of us to enjoy. Sports journalism illustrates how this works when they give the back story to players we watch on television. They serve as a reminder of the humanity of the players. They remind us that there is more to life than sports, and while we all know that, in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to keep that in mind.
It’s kind of like when my children see one of their teachers outside of the school. They have a difficult time processing the fact that their teachers have any life at all outside of the school building. Most elementary school children have trouble imaging their teachers ever leave the school building. Everyone always gets a good laugh out of this when we meet them outside of school. It seems to me, this is the same thing that happens in sports. The sports figures are there for our enjoyment and our pleasure and it is easy for us to forget that they leave the field, arenas, and gyms too. They have other lives besides what we see. Remembering this fact will help us keep sports in their proper place.