Am I Missing a Sports Gene?

As we continue to surf the pandemic wave, I find it interesting what people can and cannot live without. Right now, as high school, college and professional football seasons loom, I am witnessing a withdrawal among many that’s akin to quitting a substance–legal (alcohol/cigarettes) or illegal. Call it Sports DTs, and I don’t mean defensive tackles.

I resonated this week with an op-ed from the Syracuse, New York newspaper, the title reading: When did sports become so important that we’re willing to risk lives? Ask people who know me well: I seem to have this innate ability to start firestorms. And I did just that, again, by posting the op-ed on Facebook.

While I grew up in the shadow of Syracuse University, football and basketball were not a big draw for me. Gymnastics, yes, but I worked at a day camp program with many of those athletes; my cousin was ranked third in the state on the rings. I went to my high school football and basketball games; but honestly, I enjoyed seeing my friends there more than anything else. Central New York is also the land of lacrosse, but it was more fun to watch the Onondaga Nation teams play than my high school classmates.

Come fall 1978, I landed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to attend grad school and it became quite obvious that as a sports fan, I was in need of work. Heck, one of my first dates was to a football game. I had on a shirt and shorts. It was August In. The. South. My resident advisor (thank you, Dr. James Peace!) told me that wasn’t how people dressed for Carolina games. I went in a skirt and STOCKINGS!!! And the allure Carolina football was still lost on me. I did learn about tailgating; I saw a grown man in a Carolina blue suit serving food from the back of his Carolina blue car.

By my second semester of grad school, I was working in radio news. I was on the “team” which aired Countdown to Kick-off. Loved the camaraderie in the newsroom; doing traffic reports from an airplane, not so much. (And wait for it; promo-ed as Sue in the Blue!) Crackers and coke became my usual meal between flights.

blue and white bumper sticker for WCHL radio
Bumper sticker for WCHL Radio circa 1979

I will say reporting on a Carolina win over Duke (oh, I’m sorry–Dook) while in a phone booth on Franklin Street (Chapel Hill’s main drag) was exhilarating. But I was reporting the news: the aftermath of a very close basketball game. And yes, I wrote phone booth. We’re talking pre-live truck/satellite/internet communications. I also helped cover the 1980 Olympic basketball team when it played in Greensboro. The male reporters were in the locker room; I was at the door. I believe it was that lovable Al Wood who said you can be in here. (My first and last locker room visit!)

And while I learned a lot about sports, like how to keep score at a basketball game (thank you, Skip Foreman!), I started to see the downside of college athletics: the young athletes who never graduated. Those who were forever injured, their dreams of pro careers crushed. I was still in Chapel Hill in 1981, when Steve Streater, a UNC football player, broke his neck in a car accident; permanently paralyzed, he was returning from a tryout with the Washington Redskins. He died in 2009 at the age of 50.

Streater became the only player in Atlantic Coast Conference history to earn all-conference honors at two positions in 1980. He was a first-team safety and punter as he helped lead the Tar Heels to the 1980 ACC title. He had five interceptions as a senior, including three in the season finale vs. Duke.

Leaving Chapel Hill for Washington, DC, I experienced what was then called Redskin Fever. I went to one game. The New York Giants were playing Washington, and Lawrence Taylor asked if I would come to the game. It was the last time I saw him. I have very fond memories of Lawrence. He was a gentle giant and a gentleman. I was in a Chapel Hill bar one night with a a good friend. Several UNC football players were also there, including Lawrence. He found me and my friend, and walked us back to the dorm. It still breaks my heart as I write this that Lawrence was so used (and abused) by the world of athletics and the unsavory types who suck money from high-profile players.

My last up-close and personal brush with college athletics came when Len Bias died of a drug overdose. I was again in grad school, this time working on a Ph.D. in Public Communications. I was also working as a news editor for WJLA-TV in Washington, DC. I was sent to see if Mrs. Bias wanted to talk on camera. The news director sent me, he said, because he knew I would be respectful. The whole tale, from death to the trial of Brian Tribble, the young man who provided the drugs, became a chapter in my dissertation. (Social dramas and responsible journalism
by Ferrara, Susan E., University of Maryland, College Park, 1991, 405 pages; 9133068)

But back to the pandemic, sports, and the question: Why risk the lives of athletes?

My former Chapel Hill radio news director asked: If colleges could send students back to campus, why couldn’t college sports start up?

I responded: How does one play football with masks and social distancing? How does one tackle without touching another person? But the bigger question: Why does everyone need sports so badly that the lives of athletes need to be put on the line? Why can’t people redirect their newly-found free time to other avocations?

As the op-ed writers in the Syracuse newspaper so aptly asked:

At what point in our collective culture did sports become so important to Americans, that playing or not playing took precedence over the safety, health and well-being of its players and her citizens?

Fortunately, several conferences have canceled fall sports: the Big East Conference, the Big Ten, and the Pac 12. Sadly, ACC Commissioner John Swofford–UNC’s Athletic Director when I reported in Chapel Hill–somehow thinks the athletic show must go on.

My husband tells me this whole athletic situation reminds him of a dystopian set of novels, the Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins.

The Hunger Games universe is a dystopia set in Panem, a North American country consisting of the wealthy Capitol and 13 districts in varying states of poverty. Every year, children from the first 12 districts are selected via lottery to participate in a compulsory televised battle royale death match called The Hunger Games.

My oldest daughter tells me all the zombie/post-apocalyptic movies make sense now:

People will, in fact, completely disregard both scientists and common sense, and no amount of evidence will stop them from throwing themselves to the zombie horde. Restarting sports in the middle of a pandemic is like that fun series of movies where they keep reopening the dinosaur park despite mass evisceration of visitors and staff.

Author’s incredibly cynical daughter who works retail (please wear your masks – they go over your nose)

So my question: Do people really need high school, college and pro athletics to be the nation’s Hunger Games during this pandemic?

I think not.

I hope not.

But then, I know I don’t have a dominant sports gene.

Photo of the writer with UNC football player Amos Lawrence.
A younger me interviewing UNC running back Amos Lawrence.

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