This morning I read a story about a sports team that arose almost literally from the ashes. Grenfell Athletic is a soccer squad based in London made up of survivors and community members affected by the horrific fire at Grenfell Towers in 2017. Almost immediately, from the sheer weight of the tragedy, members of the community sought to band together in a healing way. Football (as is the correct term) is a uniting force, even if that unity is directed into anger against another squad. The amateur/ semi-pro Sunday side was formed and has found both growth and athletic success. A truly memorable story.
Which gives us pause to think about the oddly outsized weight given to sports in western society. During the early stages of the pandemic, despite the fear and uncertainty of pestilence, one of the major concerns was “Will sport survive?” The English Premier League took some heat for returning to the pitch after nine or so months to finish the abandoned season (’19-’20) in front of empty houses. The NHL encapsulated their playoff teams into two bubbles (one in the US and one in Canada) to award the Stanley Cup. In that case, not only did they not allow fans, but the teams were forced to live in seclusion for the entire length of the ordeal (in the finalist’s case for more than two months) leading to who knows what scars. But people responded, watching the games in all their eerie silence. Was it a normalizing salve or just a novelty in the disinfectant envelope in which everyone was secluded?
Sports are important. No, rewrite that. Recreation is important. There has to be something that shifts the human mind from its working drudgery or its lonesome self-reflection. Something that gives, what, joy? A surcease of boredom? A moment of outward facing relief? Maybe the effect is in recreation’s ability to recharge the functional parts of the brain and spirit. I have often equated watching a game with waking sleep, not in terms of REM, but in terms of stopping the mind from churning. But there is also the fellowship aspect of sport. In the case of the EPL or the NBA or the NHL, even though we were not in the bubble with the teams, we at least were sharing the moment unconsciously with each player and each fan. And for the teams themselves, they are sharing the panoply of emotions – grief, relief, guilt, healing, despair, optimism – with each run out on the pitch and each ball kicked.