What up, Bulls Nation. How ’bout that Bench Mob, eh? Looking pretty strong. The Bulls sit 5-4 as I type this late on Thursday night, with a rematch against the Boston Celtics fast approaching as the relentless early-season schedule rages on.
But, if you’ll allow, I’d like to pause discussing our beloved Bulls. Let’s be honest; we diehard fans probably discuss this team to an extent verging on what some professionals might call “unhealthy obsession.” No judgment here, though.
Let’s discuss something else. Trigger warning for those who don’t care for mixing sports with … other things.
It’s the Pecking Order.
The biggest headline in the NBA this past week has been Brooklyn Nets superstar Kyrie Irving, who has actively chosen to upset the masses by posting a link to a movie with anti-Semitic themes on his social media account(s). While he did eventually take the post down — it took him several days to do so — his public statements have done little to convince people that a) he doesn’t have some anti-Semitic beliefs and/or b) he’s genuinely sorry for the hurt he’s caused.
[*Author’s note: Nearing the completion of drafting this column, Kyrie Irving did issue a formal public apology.]
I offered my two cents on the latest Kyrie scandal during our Thursday episode, so I don’t need to repeat it here. If you do want to read or listen to some eloquent thoughts on the matter from other members of the media, here are a few I found to be fair, thorough, and educational:
As the sports world — and even those on the outside — digest this storyline and all the opinions and discussions that spawned from it, a familiar phrase predictably began popping:
“Stick to Sports.“
In moments such as this, such a retort is often muttered. On some level, I can understand the sentiment. Being a sports fan and cheering on your favorite teams — at your friend’s house, at the bar, at the stadium — is a wonderful distraction many of us crave. A release from the daily stresses of everyday life. An escape from real world shit that bums us out and drags us down.
How can sport be so effective in serving this purpose?
In my humble opinion, it’s always been about the shared moment. Living through joy and pain, triumph and defeat, and doing so together. Sport is the vehicle that allows us all to connect with friends, family, strangers, and everyone in between. Our brains and hearts feed off the positive energy that comes from that feeling of belonging. Different people from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religions, and orientations are brought together to worship their team. Our team.
Sports fandom can — and usually does — supersede all of those dividing lines. Wearing the same jersey? We are the same family. Because we care that much. I’d sooner hug a complete stranger in a Bears jersey than a close friend wearing green and gold. [I’ll admit I do have a few Packers fan friends in my life. I’ve tried everything short of a lobotomy. Nothing has worked. We don’t speak much from September through January.] But sometimes, those dividing lines get raised back up when something happens that strikes a chord. And they’re more than just dividing lines. They’re shields.
Humans, by nature, are averse to having their beliefs challenged. But what separates us from other sentient beings is, occasionally, we are capable of striving beyond that animalistic impulse with empathy, open minds, and critical thinking. Sadly, it doesn’t happen regularly enough. Remaining fixated to our comfort zones is always the easiest choice.
And before you think I’m about to preach from a pedestal, I’ll willingly admit to being guilty of this myself. I’ve often blocked people on social media who have outwardly differing political and social views from my own. It seems in recent years the separation between us and them has grown stronger in our country. Blocking someone on Twitter is easier than engaging in open conversation about our differences.
Perhaps the Internet and constant interaction with strangers on social media was just the tool that pried open our eyes to see a troubling realization: There are waaaaay more people out there — neighbors, fellow Chicagoans, fellow citizens‚ who disagree on social and political issues impacting our daily life than we previously thought. But…they’re wearing the same jersey. They’re family.
So, what now? How do we move forward?
I don’t entirely know. I don’t have any ironclad answers. All I do know is that we can’t ignore it when members of our family are being marginalized, discriminated against, wrongfully detained or killed, or stripped of their human rights. It cannot just be those most immediately affected by the latest occurrence to stand up and say, “This is not okay.” We ALL must stand up, or kneel, or march, or lend a hand. If we aren’t sure what to do, we must ask those most directly affected how we can help, listen, and follow through with action.
Those of us who are lucky enough to have a platform that reaches and connects people from all walks of life can never shy away from addressing real issues. Even if we think they don’t directly relate to us and our life. Because whenever we think it doesn’t, a quick reality check will prove otherwise. These issues matter to members of our family. And not just those we were born into, but also the family we choose.
As a man, I cannot be silent when women’s reproductive rights are threatened simply because I have different reproductive organs.
Though I may be agnostic to religion, I cannot be silent when people of any faith are discriminated against, simply because they worship different gods — or any god at all.
As a [very] white person, I cannot be silent when people of color are discriminated against simply because … there is no because.
As a straight person, I cannot be silent when members of the LGBTQ+ community are discriminated against simply because … there is no because.
As someone without children, I cannot be silent when innocent children are slaughtered in their schools by a gun-blazing lunatic simply because … THERE IS NO F***ING BECAUSE.
Just think, for a moment, about all the sports fans you’ve encountered in your life. Maybe just passing on the sidewalk wearing navy and orange, or red and white, and you share a nod. Maybe you shared a beer and a chat watching the game that one time at the bar by yourself when you didn’t want to watch the game alone. Maybe someone tweeted something funny or insightful about your team and you exchanged a few replies back and forth, and you made an internet friend. Hundreds, even thousands of people.
Therein lies the beauty of sports and fandom. A simple connection of mind and heart to like-minded folks. One tribe, all invested in the cause, comprised of diverse and interesting people. What are the odds that none of those members of your sports fan family have been directly or indirectly affected by tragedy, injustices, or hurtful discrimination that, when brought to light in certain settings, triggers some of us to yell, “Stick to Sports!”
I’ll tell you the odds.
And that is why we must never stick to sports. It goes against everything that fandom represents: conversing and connecting with the community in unified joy. If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything.
As a sports fan, imagine a scenario where your team scores a touchdown, hits a home run, or sinks a buzzer-beating shot. But no friends or family are there to high-five. No bar patrons you barely know to accost with a hug because JUSTIN FIELDS! No celebratory tweets to like and no one to like yours, with social media timelines being silent.
None of that. Just you. In a vacuum. There’s no one else. Simply because…
Is it still fun? Does it still make you feel what you feel when there are other fans around you to share the joy? Or commiserate the sorrow?
Or is it just nothing.
Stick to sports? No thanks. I’ll stick with people.
Thanks for reading.
See Red. Be Good.
*Below is our Thursday episode, in which we spend the first ~25 minutes discussing the Kyrie Irving situation: