Far afield: Playing through pain

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

Fennville High School’s basketball team has played and won two Michigan state tournament games in the week since one of their teammates, Wes Leonard, collapsed and died on the court. The games were moved to a larger venue for the crowds that turned out to support the team and to honor Leonard.

Last year, as a University of Virginia men’s lacrosse player stood accused of murdering a women’s team member, both stricken programs followed similar protocol. Two days after the gruesome tragedy, the university announced that in the upcoming men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments, the teams would play on, in tribute to the victim, Yeardley Love.

Three days after team videographer Declan Sullivan died during practice, Notre Dame hosted a football game. I wonder what consideration was given to cancellation. It seems almost absurd, given the national television audience and fans traveling to South Bend, to suggest that might be an option.

Every time something like this happens, I can’t help but wonder about the players on those teams who would sooner curl up in the corner than compete in a state of shock and despair. Do they have any choice? What pressure must they feel to do well in the face of personal tragedy?

I don’t claim to know what’s right for anyone in mourning, but in sports there seems to be only one choice: Play through the pain, with black armbands, helmet stickers, initials inked onto sneakers and moments of silence.

After a University of Miami starter’s mother died in a car accident last December, an NBC Miami report described his situation this way: “As if losing his mother days before Christmas wasn’t difficult enough, Miami running back Mike James was handed the unenviable task of choosing between her funeral and the Hurricanes’ bowl game against Notre Dame when services were scheduled for the exact same time as kickoff.” He chose to play.

Brett Favre made the same decision the day after his dad died of a sudden heart attack. Sports Illustrated reported that the quarterback “played his heavy heart out, inspiring his teammates to do great things.” The headline: “Favre riddles Raiders with four TDs after losing father.” Both James and Favre said their lost loved ones would have wanted them to play.

Is it too cynical to wonder if anybody believes their parents would have wanted them to take a biology test or show up for work at the textile plant under the same circumstances? Why do sports — “only a game,” as they say — have such paramount importance that they transcend the natural pause to grieve?

People often say tragedy puts sports “in perspective.” How, then, can a coach holler at a referee, or a player summon the will to fight for a rebound, or fans find room in their hearts to cheer while their wounds are so fresh? Maybe it’s part of the healing process for the people left behind. They should not be criticized for finding comfort wherever they can, but suiting up at the next opportunity is so common and predictable that it feels like an expectation imposed rather than a wish fulfilled.

Of course, life goes on. It’s just that the rush back to some semblance of normalcy and routine can reduce it to something more like a shoe-commercial slogan: the game is life. That might be the practical reality of sports for many involved, but that’s not one of the life lessons they’re supposed to teach.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.