From the Basement: Navigating tragedy in sports
April 11, 2018
Last Friday, a bus crashed while carrying the Humboldt Broncos, a Canadian junior hockey team. Fifteen passengers were killed, with 10 being young players from the team and one being the head coach. The response has been expansive: the GoFundMe for the families affected has topped $8 million and figures such as Pope Francis, Queen Elizabeth and Donald Trump have all expressed condolences to the team.
Perhaps one of the most engaging things about sports is the way people are able to rally around them. Super Bowl parties are as “American” as Thanksgiving. Forty million Americans filled out 70 million brackets during March Madness 2017. There was not a day in November of 2016 without hearing about the Cubs winning the World Series. In the same way Americans rally around these victories, they rally around tragedies.
This is only the most recent of a long list of sports-related tragedies that have made national and even international news. Almost one year ago, Chyna Thomas, the sister of Isaiah Thomas, a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, was killed in an automobile accident. First came the outpouring of sympathy, then the outpouring of speculation. People questioned why she was driving a ’98 Toyota Camry when her brother had a net worth of more than $10 million. Why hadn’t Thomas been wearing a seat belt? Had she been under the influence of drugs or alcohol? (She was not, by the way.)
There is a line between support and invading privacy. The sympathy that is found for these teams and individuals can often be helpful in healing, and raising money for the funerals is certainly nothing to discourage. Oftentimes, however, citizens forget that these players are real people, with real families, who do not answer to the public’s whims. Victims of tragedies and their families are criticized for reacting in specific ways to this attention, or their personal lives are invaded as a result of the public’s desire to dissect the incident, as was the case with Thomas. In these situations, it is important to be mindful of what the place, as fans, is.
Athletes often toe the line of celebrity. Certainly, there are players who have become extremely well known, such as LeBron James or Tom Brady, but most players do not acquire the same level of fame, except for when tragedy strikes. For those players who have crossed the line into fame, tragedies are even more sensationalized. Erik Karlsson, a player for the Ottawa Senators, and his wife recently lost a stillborn son after a highly publicized pregnancy. His Instagram post, which broke the news, has more than 10,000 comments. In comparison, his previous photo had 49. Over and over, athletes thank their fans for support, while they beg for the respect of their privacy. It is the responsibility of the fans to give this basic right to them.
Those who are not sports fans can never truly understand the community and connection that is developed with a team, its players or even the sport itself. For many fans, sports are part of their identities, so they feel personally connected when tragedies rock these communities. Fans should stand together in support of those affected by tragedy, but they also have to be careful. Donate to the Broncos, sympathize with Thomas and Karlsson, but stop there. These are not our stories to tell.