There are times when sports bring out the best in us.
Like Victor Cruz writing a heartfelt message on his cleats, dedicated to a 6-year-old victim of the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
There are times when sports bring out the worst in us.
Not even 72 hours removed from the horror in Newtown, there were racist tweets blasting NBC for pre-empting its regular Sunday night football coverage to show President Obama's speech from that devastated community. One of the tweets apparently was sent by a walk-on player at the University of North Alabama (who quickly became a former player).
Sports, of course, had nothing to do with Adam Lanza's walking into that school and killing 26 people, most of them innocent little kids filled with nothing but hope and wonder and goodness. America needs to come to grips with truly important issues: gun control, mental illness, a violent culture among them.
Yet, we need sports – perhaps more than ever – to help us get started on that path toward being a better nation, a better people, a better world. Maybe, just maybe, in some small way the games we play can show us how to be a little nicer to each other, or at least more respectful.
The athletes can lead the way. Their actions have meaning, now more than ever.
So, instead of ranting at the ref for blowing a call, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of hitting someone after the whistle or getting so enraged that injuring the guy in the other uniform seems a worthy option, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of standing triumphantly over a vanquished foe, trumpeting themselves at the expense of someone else, try to remember there's more at stake than a game.
So many are watching.
Given the huge importance we place on what happens in our stadiums and arenas, sports are again positioned, just as they were after 9/11 and other national horrors, to help us uncover some meaningful purpose to an utterly senseless tragedy.
Let's not waste it this time.
There's no doubting the power of sports to lift people up, to inspire us to greater heights, to bring us together as one. There's no doubting the power of sports to console the grieving, to comfort the ailing, to make it easier to move on when we can barely find the strength for our next breath.
"Sports is one of the most effective consolations for people dealing with grief," said Ron Marasco, a professor at Loyola Marymount University who has written a book on dealing with loss. "In the early stages of grief, isolation and loneliness are the biggest problems. That shared communal experience of sports is actually a very healthy thing."
Just look at what Cruz, a receiver for the New York Giants, did during Sunday's game in Atlanta against the Falcons. He was the favorite player of Jack Pinto, one of those whose life ended on what should've been just another day at school, such a hero to the child that his family planned to bury him Monday in one of Cruz's No. 80 jerseys.
"R.I.P. Jack Pinto," Cruz wrote on his playing shoes, along with "Jack Pinto, my hero" and "This one is for you." It didn't really matter that the Giants played one of their worst games of the season, losing 34-0.
Such is the power of sports.
"With a family facing that much tragedy, you want to be someone that inspires them, someone that can put a smile on their face at a time where it's tough to do that," Cruz said after a loss on the field but a win in life.
That said, sports must do more.
Let's have a serious discussion about all that is wrong with the games we play. The misplaced priorities. The sense of life and death when nothing could be further from the truth. And, especially, the nastiness and hatred it stirs from deep within our souls.
Not long after Cruz played with a heavy heart, we got a sampling of that other side on Twitter.
Some used social media to dole out racist vitriol against Obama while demonstrating how utterly meaningless their own lives must be, since they apparently thought the first quarter of the San Francisco-New England game was more important than a president's stirring words in Newtown.
One of the tweets was reportedly sent by Bradley Patterson, a walk-on long snapper who joined North Alabama's NCAA Division II football team during the season, though he never actually played. Now, he won't get the chance; the school said he was no longer welcome on the team, even as a blocking dummy in practice.
While those such as Patterson, who were actually willing to type out their ugly thoughts in 140 characters or less, make up a very small minority, there was surely a much greater number muttering to themselves about missing their football while Obama spoke, totally oblivious to the suffering in Connecticut.
That's why it's time for all of us to look in the mirror, to not let another tragedy pass without some meaningful change.
So, instead of punching someone in the face down at the local bar because they trash-talked your favorite team, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of posting a vile tweet about a coach's mental capacity because you think he made the wrong call, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of screaming an obscenity at an 18-year-old kid because he dropped a pass or threw an interception, try to remember there's more at stake than a game.
This is not in any way suggesting we shouldn't strive for triumph as much as we ever did. Celebrate it, too.
Life has always been about the Ws and the Ls.
But we can play nice, or at least nicer.
That would be the best way for sports to remember Newtown.