The Week When Sports Would Not Let America Look Away

The Week When Sports Would Not Let America Look Away

Before the big NBA game Tuesday night, there was no talk of basketball: only frustration, rage and pain.

On Thursday, sports slid into the background once again, as was appropriate, replaced by heartbreaking facts, courtesy of two Major League Baseball teams, and calls to do something to end the carnage.

Something is wrong in America. We can’t figure out how to stop aggression and death.

The rampage killings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, have again shaken us to the core. We brace against the plague of gun violence that threatens every part of the country: grocery stores and churches, street corners and shopping centers, and schools filled with grade school children.

Daily life feels at any moment like it could turn into horror.

Amid all of this, our games go on. Important games featuring remarkable teams. The Golden State Warriors played their familiar brand of beautiful basketball in the conference finals of the NBA playoffs. The Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, division rivals and contenders to win this year’s World Series, played a key series in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Sports can be a tonic during hard times. Games and great performances offer a chance to wash away awful emotion. To move on and even forget. But hours after 19 students and two teachers were murdered in Uvalde, Steve Kerr, Golden State’s head coach, a man who knows firsthand the suffering caused by gun violence, would not let us turn from the agony completely.

And the Yankees and Rays would soon come together in a way that demanded attention be paid to what matters – and what mattered most was not about wins or losses or the battle for first place in the American League East.

In the minutes before Game 4 of his team’s playoff series, Kerr sat at a table before reporters and powerfully let loose. Nothing he said was scripted. Everything came from the heart, molded by personal experience. And it had nothing to do with basketball or sports.

“In the last 10 days, we’ve had elderly Black people killed in Buffalo, Asian churchgoers killed in Southern California. And now we have children murdered at school, ”Kerr said, his words forceful enough to go viral almost instantly. His voice quaked. His eyes narrowed with burning-ember emotion.

He pounded the table, as his voice rose.

“I’m fed up. I’ve had enough. We’re going to play the game tonight, but I want every person listening to this to think about your own child or grandchild or mother or father, sister, brother. How would you feel if this happened to you today?

“When are we going to do something?” he added.

“Enough!”

Kerr has long spoken out in news conferences and other venues for stricter gun laws and against our society’s thirst for violence. He did so again this week, denouncing the politicians who do nothing and specifically railing against the Senate for not even passing legislation as simple as a requirement for universal background checks.

In that moment, watching him was to watch a man struggling to make sense of a tragedy he is all too familiar with. In 1984, during Kerr’s freshman year at the University of Arizona, his father, Malcolm, was shot and killed by assassins outside his office at the American University in Beirut.

With the dark cloud of wanton gun violence growing in America, don’t expect silence.

Political statements are more rare in baseball, still nominally our national pastime though its dwindling audience has aged toward conservatism. Even the staid Yankees – so tradition-bound a team that they don’t even allow players to wear facial hair – and their division rival collaborated on a singular message. Instead of posting the usual stats and scoring updates during their game Thursday, both teams shared facts about gun violence to millions of followers.

When they played on Thursday, their Twitter and Instagram posts focused entirely on the death toll of guns in this country.

“This cannot become normal,” read another. “We cannot become numb. We cannot look the other way. We all know, if nothing changes, nothing changes. ”

Another: “Every day, more than 110 Americans are killed with guns, and more than 200 are shot and injured. ”

Jason Zillo, the Yankees’ vice president of communications, put the posts in perspective in a text message to my colleague David Waldstein this week. “As citizens of the world, it’s hard to process these shootings and just slip back into a regular routine,” Zillo said. “For one night, we wanted to reflect and draw attention to statistics that carry so much more significance and weight than batting average.”

Well said. And well done.

I’m one of the legions touched by gun violence: the suicide of a favorite great-uncle, the slaying of a distant cousin, an infant, by a stray bullet in a gang shootout. My pain swims in the same deep currents that swell across America. Together we grieve. Together we decide how to respond.

This week, Steve Kerr, and the Yankees and Rays were there to remind us not to dive too deep into the easy distraction of sports – and that action is required to end this madness.

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