Most tragedies play out the same in the sporting world. A couple of games are cancelled or postponed. There is a moment of silence before the next set of games, followed by endless proclamations about the necessity of entertainment, the necessity of sports’ role in helping us forget about the horrors of every day life. My reaction to this entirely predictable cycle has always been the same: bullshit.
I simply didn’t buy it. Sports don’t exist in a vacuum, in a venue detached from the rest of our lives. That’s one of the main premises behind The Diss, and why Jacob and I use sports to try to understand complex topics like politics, media, race and more. Seventy years ago the sporting world was embroiled in the country’s debate over racial integration. Thirty years ago it was embroiled in the country’s debate over labor unions. Today it is embroiled in the country’s debate over gay marriage. To insist that sports are apolitical and a simple diversion is to ignore their true power, to lie.
It’s also not how I experience sports. I’ve played sports my entire life, mostly soccer and ultimate frisbee. I have been on teams where our year’s accomplishment was winning third place in a very uncompetitive tournament, and I have (lamest humblebrag ever alert) won two Division III National Championships. I have always played because of the friendships I developed with teammates, because I enjoyed proving I was better than my opponent, because the feeling from putting a perfect bend on a free kick was worth hundreds of hours of practices—but never because of something in my every day life I wanted to escape.
In most situations I am rational to a fault, rational to the detriment of developing important social skills like empathy. It is a personality trait that is generally useful in the midst of tragedy though, when many others are so affected they find it difficult to function. I have never been afraid of bombings or flying on a plane because I know that I’m more at risk riding my bike to work every morning that I am suffering from seemingly random violence. I’m not one to make vacuous statements like “my thoughts with their families” because those have always seemed more about the person saying them than the intended recipient who will never hear them.
But not yesterday. Yesterday’s violence in Boston fucked me up, and I’m not exactly sure why.
Maybe it is because the bombings took place at a sporting event, the type of thing I frequently attend.
Maybe it is because yesterday was the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster—when 96 Liverpool fans went to a soccer match and never returned home—and I had watched heart-wrenching videos from the memorial service earlier in the day.
Maybe it is because a friend was posting pictures and race updates on Facebook of another friend running the marathon. The last update came 25 minutes before the bombing, and noted she was at mile 22. Maybe it is because a family member of hers was hit by debris from the explosion and was taken to the hospital. Maybe it was because I only found out hours afterwards that one of my closest friends in the world was spectating between miles 24 and 25.
But if I were to hazard a guess, it is because eight months ago I moved to Washington, DC. Previously I had spent 20 years of my life living in Oakland, and 4 in a rural Minnesota town. It is probably quite obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me—geography heavily impacts how we understand terrorism, even when we aren’t directly involved. It may yet prove to be a ridiculous notion, but bombings just don’t happen on the west coast. They happen in those world cities—London and Mumbai and New York and Washington—not comparatively sleepy Portland and San Francisco. The same part of us that so convincingly believes east coast media bias is a thing reserves terrorism as an east coast phenomenon. There’s always talk that the Golden Gate Bridge is a potential target, but everybody I know just laughed it off.
As I write this piece though, I am one mile from the US Capitol. Three miles from the White House. Four miles from the Pentagon. I am 228, not 2,899, miles from New York. Now when I hear that the roads around the Capitol have been closed, it’s not an abstract piece of information as it is for those that live thousands of miles away. It not only affects my commute home, but potentially my safety, my girlfriend’s safety, and the safety of my little puppy, curled up at the end of the couch taking up more room than necessary as dogs are wont to do.
I was useless for the second half of my workday, barely able to build a simple table in Excel let alone write my section for a draft report. Just kept hitting F9, F9, F9, trying to learn more. I remembered that I had a couple of basketball league games last night, and briefly wondered if they would be cancelled before realizing that would be stupid. I may have been in the most cautious and heavily militarized city in the United States, but I was still 450 miles from Boston.
At 6:20 I hustled out of work to ride the 25 blocks through the heart of Washington, only to discover a problem with my bike. I quickly decided the best alternative was to take the Metro instead, catching a train right before it left the station. I sat down breathlessly, awaiting the inevitable cacophony of unpleasant Metro sounds and smells.
But it was quiet. Nobody was blasting music out of their cell phones and nobody was loudly discussing their happy hour plans with colleagues. There was just an uncomfortable, eerie, nervous, silence. It was then I realized that nobody was fully comfortable riding Metro—not after the London Underground, not after Boston—and maybe I shouldn’t be either. I too rode the rest of the way in silence.
I arrived just in time for our first of four games, but we had a bye. While the other two teams played I glanced at my phone, read some tweets, waited.
The first two games passed in a haze of discombobulation. We barely lost to a team better than us in our first game, and we lost to a team worse than us in our second game after I was torched by their best player. I played off of him and he hit a three. I jammed him and forced him to his non-dominant hand and he blew by me. I fought through a screen and didn’t cede an inch as he backed me down, only for him to rise above me with a jumper.
Second bye. I tried checking my phone again, but it was dead. I had forgotten to charge it at work. A long drink of water later and we were on the court.
This time I guarded a 240 lbs. guy that could shoot, giving up a full 50 lbs. in the matchup. He tried backing me down, shoving his huge backside into me. Once. Twice. I somehow held my ground, and he decided to shoot a jumper instead of trying a third time. I won my matchup, but we still lost.
Our final game began inauspiciously, as I bricked a jumper. The shot felt wrong as soon as it left my hand, however, so I raced in for my own putback. I asked if it counted as a Kobe assist, perhaps the nerdiest trash that has ever been talked on a basketball court. I begged off of the guy that torched me in our second game, instead guarding a long-limbed scarecrow of a man that preferred to shoot 3s instead of taking advantage of his enormous reach inside. Fine by me. We finally won.
As my teammates and I exited the sweltering elementary school gymnasium, we bullshitted about the games, about the work we had to do. Finally one of them asked “you guys hear about Boston?” and it dawned on me: I hadn’t thought about it in an hour. The challenge of guarding Oliver Miller Jr., of scoring my only two points of the night, had so completely subsumed me that I forgot. Forgot about bombs planted around Boston. Forgot about my friends who were literally running towards death and dismemberment. Forgot about my unease at seeing two soldiers with M16s as I had exited Metro.
For the first time sport took me away from a world I didn’t want to live in, if only for an hour.
For that I am grateful.