Jeff Byers: The Healing Power of Sports
June 12, 2012 6:00 AM
by Jeff Byers
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I love sports and I love the important role they play in our society.

We need sports. I remember reading columns after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and sports columnists were saying how the attacks really put everything in perspective.

Now, they wrote, we should all see how unimportant sports really are.

My feelings were just the opposite – I thought 9/11 helped showcase just how vital sports are to our collective psyche. There was something defiant and gratifying about seeing the games being played again in the days and weeks after the attack. The games seemed to take on even greater significance to me and, I think, many Americans.

Of the three lasting images for me from the year that followed the terror attacks, two of them were sports-related. I remember George W. Bush standing on a pile of rubble and grabbing that bullhorn and announcing that: “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people – the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

The other two lasting impressions for me were George W. Bush throwing a perfect strike before Game Three of the World Series at Yankees Stadium with a chorus of “USA, USA, USA” reigning down and then there were the Patriots players walking out together at the Super Bowl.

Of course, being the Yankees hater that I am, I also remember the Diamondbacks winning that series and making me smile, and I came to realize that watching the Patriots win multiple Super Bowls did not excite me in the least. But those moments were, and always will be, very special.

I also remember watching pictures of military personnel watching the Super Bowl. It was a big deal to them, a needed diversion from the very real dangers they were and are confronting on our behalf. None of us, or very few of us, believe sports is anywhere near as important as family, or life and death, or any of the many serious issues that confront us. But what sports provides in a unifying, exciting diversion that can do wonders for the spirit.

Not everyone follows sports – as crazy as that seems to me – but virtually everyone has a passion for something other than the truly important things in our lives. Whether it’s movies or movie stars you follow or musical acts or authors – there is some kind of diversion for most of us that provides passion. Sports, though, can unite local communities and sometimes larger ones in ways that very few things can.

I think sports can play a vital role in recovery – whether it is the national psyche following 9/11 or an individual recovering from chemo and watching his or her favorite team play – sports can help the healing process.

My grandfather was a big Pittsburgh sports fans and we would always go to the Penn State/Pitt game (yes, kids, there was a time when the Nittany Lions and Panthers played each other every season). We went to the game together and met up afterward but we didn’t sit together because that would have been too hard for each of us.

After he passed in 1992, Penn State didn’t play in Pittsburgh again until 1998 and I remember that game well because I was working at KDKA Radio and was excited that the teams were playing at Pitt again but profoundly sad that I couldn’t talk about the game with my grandfather (and I was really upset that I couldn’t razz him after the Nittany Lions victory.) 

Every time the Pirates win another game, I can’t help but think of the hours the late Pat Boland and I spent lamenting the woes of our beloved Bucs. The wins these last couple of years are even sweeter because of the connection to a lost friend.

Penn State fans will not soon forget the players of both the Nittany Lions and the Nebraska Cornhuskers gathering on the field before this past season’s game to pray for the victims of child abuse. Sports provides powerful images.

Sports thrives on emotion and you could feel the emotion through the TV screen when Bush pitched that perfect strike at Yankee Stadium or when the Patriots came out together. I can still get chills thinking about the Penn State-Pitt game in 1998 or last year’s game with Nebraska.

I am looking forward to the Olympics and the opportunities that await athletes from various nations and various backgrounds to test themselves and raise the spirits of their respective countries.

It is why I am looking forward to the upcoming football season. For all of the awful details we have learned and will undoubtedly continue to learn over the summer, I know the Penn State community and what we really represent.

I know that while football isn’t the most important thing, it is something important. It will bring us together and reconnect us with both the good days gone by and the unending possibilities of the days ahead.

Let the games, and the healing, continue.

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