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Good sports

Sports always bring out a fevered-pitch reaction from fans. Sporting events create great memories and great lessons, and can serve as a great unifier. Sports can also rally beleaguered people out of their despair and malaise. Sports are about inspiration and challenge. More than just wins and losses, sports can teach us about winning with class and losing with grace.

History gives us so many examples.

When many of America’s athletes went to fight in WWII, the owners of several major league baseball teams decided to form the “All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.” Initially created as a moneymaker, the league became incredibly popular as it gave the country something to cheer for during a time of war. In fact, it was so popular that the league played for nine years after the war’s end.

There have been times when individual athletes inspired people to do more, be more, or overcome more. Boxer James J. Braddock did this at the height of the Great Depression. In 1934, Braddock was down on his luck as a fighter, striving desperately to feed his family and forced to take government welfare. Earning a chance to get back in the ring, he began to make a name for himself as a heavyweight.

In 1935, as a 10-to-1 underdog, Braddock was tapped to fight heavyweight champ Max Baer. It was heralded as the fight of the common man against the times and capstoned in the locker room scene of his biographical movie when his wife told him: “You just remember who you are… you’re the Bulldog of Bergen and the Pride of New Jersey, you’re everybody’s hope, and the kids’ hero and you are the champion of my heart.”

Depression-era Americans were inspired when Braddock gave more than he got, winning a unanimous decision to become the “Cinderella Man.” They were even more inspired when Braddock took some of his winnings and repaid the welfare department for the money he had drawn during his down days.

Sports moments can also show us when an athlete whom we already admire for his skill on the field is far more than an athlete. One of those moments occurred in August 1982 at Fenway Park, when a line-drive foul hit a four-year-old boy named Jonathan Keane in the head. Future Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Rice was in the Red Sox dugout that day. Seeing the incident, Rice recognized the desperate moment and jumped into the crowd, carrying the bloody child back to the dugout and urging the Red Sox medical team to treat him. Rice finished the game in a blood-stained uniform. Doctors later said that Rice's actions had saved the boy's life.

But Rice went a step further. After visiting the boy’s family in the hospital Rice realized they were not well off, so he had the boy’s medical bills sent to him.

Rice and Keane were reunited recently. Young Jonathan grew up healthy and strong and claims that, even though his memory of the event is gone, he owes his life to Jim Rice.

But sometimes, in and around sports, things just get a bit on the stupid side.  One of the most ridiculous moments in modern history came recently when a young nine-year-old fan of the Kansas City Chiefs was accused of racism by a sports blog called “Deadspin.” The young boy was decked out at a recent game in full Chiefs regalia, with a jersey, feathered headdress, and face paint. His image is already iconic. But the fellas at Deadspin thought they could use the magic crutch of racism to get some clickbait and accused the boy of being a white supremacist for wearing what they called “black face.” The kids face was, in fact, painted black … on one side. Half black and half red because those are the colors of the Kansas City Chiefs.

I don’t know what the haters are going to use now. Did anyone really believe that a nine-year-old would head out to a public venue intending to do a racist presentation? The truth is, he was there for the magical moment that kids dream of: dressing up to support their team, wearing their favorite jersey, painting their face, eating junk food, and yelling and carrying on at the all-American pastime.

We need sports to be sports, pure, simple, and unadulterated – good times under the lights, with cool breezes, popcorn, and the highs and lows of winning and losing. Sports are the great unifier. They are the great distraction from all the junk of the regular world. Sports are a place where super people do mythical things, and fans call out their names loudly and cheer wildly.

Sports should always be what Terence Mann, James Earl Jones's character in the movie “Field of Dreams” described in his perfect baritone:

“[T]hey'll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game, and it'll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces.…People will come, Ray. … The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game – it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhh, people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

Let sports be sports. We need them.

Play ball…

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