November 10, 2015
The most uncomfortable moments for a sports fan do not occur on a fourth-and-one with a game on the line. They do not occur when the hometown cleanup hitter is at the plate at the bottom of the ninth. And they do not occur in overtime on the ice or the basketball court.
Those are the beautiful moments of tension that make sports so dramatic. Those are the moments when the TV shots of the faces in the crowd are just as telling as the faces of the athletes.
Those are the moments when you know there is a reason somebody else is on the big screen in high definition and you are on the sofa grabbing another handful of corn chips to get you through the moment.
But the uncomfortable moments are the ones in sports when you have to think beyond the goal line; those moments when you have to consider the character of the player who might carry the fortunes for – or against -- your team.
And lately, there have been far too many of those moments.
The most recent involved the continuing saga of Dallas Cowboy Greg Hardy, whose despicable behavior was further highlighted last week when pictures emerged of the woman he allegedly assaulted. So, while the Eagles outlasted the Cowboys in an overtime thriller in Dallas on Sunday night, that Hardy story was constantly lurking in the background.
The problem for a fan of the NFL -- or of any sport for that matter -- is whether it is better to keep those stories in the background or bring them out into the forefront.
Difficult as it is to confront the best scenario usually is to shine a bright light on the problem in the hope that the avenue of athletics can actually be used to improve society.
In the past few years, sports fans have had to deal with the ugliness of Ray Rice and Hardy on the issue of abuse of women; Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on the matter of cheating; allegations of sexual abuse against Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane; and most recently, the mess at the University of Missouri on yet another volatile situation involving race relations.
When you really look at the problems, the issue of deflated footballs is trivial compared to the others. Brady has gone on a scorched earth run with his Patriots to try and erase the implications that he needed to cheat to win.
But even if the Patriots go undefeated, the shadow of Deflategate (coupled with Spygate) will tarnish whatever silver trophies the Patriots garner in this era.
But the larger issues are the ones that really make us want to bury our heads in the sports websites and pretend they do not exist. The issue of cheating might cause a rousing debate among fans, but the larger real life issues such as bullying, abuse of women, spousal abuse, alcohol and drug addiction, abuse of animals and race problems are far more serious than wins and losses.
The irony is that sports is our greatest venue to get away from those problems. You can usually turn away from the ugly news stories of the day and get lost in the triviality of professional sports.
And then the two worlds collide.
It is only natural -- and probably in the best interest of all involved that while a game is being played – that those issues get put on the sidelines. But that does not mean they should remain hidden.
Far from it.
From generation to generation we have seen how the world of sports can help shine a light on problems and actually make things better. Although far from perfect, the story of Jackie Robinson played a huge part in at least advancing the rights of African-Americans. The next generation saw Cassius Clay turn into Muhammad Ali and similar issues were openly discussed.
That race issue was raised again at the University of Missouri where the football team was going to refuse to play until a student’s hunger strike in protest of racial hatred on campus was ended when the president of the state university system was removed.
The president and others resigned and although football wasn’t the only motivating issue it certainly proved to shine a greater light on the problems. It was a rare case of the football players actually playing the part of student athletes rather than just athletes who happened to attend the school to cause some change at the school.
There are hose who might argue either side of the football team’s place in that scenario, but there can be no doubt that sports was used to address an enormous social issue.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles were chastised loudly when they decided to give Michael Vick his second chance. Vick, who served time in jail after his association with dog fighting and torture, appears to have rehabilitated to some degree, and the issue of dog fighting was brought front and center too a population that might have never turned its attention to that atrocity.
The arguments will be loud, strong and compelling that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was irresponsible when he signed Hardy to a contract. Those arguments hold a lot of weight, and most people will tend to agree that Hardy’s conduct even after the incident are reprehensible.
It is an ugly story, but unless stories such as that are brought to light, they would only get uglier and more numerous. Those stories might get in the way of the good times we are supposed enjoy in the sandlots of pro sports, but to hide our heads in the sand and pretend they do not exist would be disgraceful.