When not playing is right call
I will never forget a boys' soccer game I covered on a sunny day back when I reported on high school sports. The parents hugged one another on arrival, players from both teams seemed listless and, when the national anthem was played, there were fierce eyes beneath the tears. The final score was dutifully preserved in the scorebook.
It was Sept. 11, 2001, and I was at a community field just north of New York City, where two schools decided to play a slate of games in the wake of one of the worst tragedies in our nation's history.
In American sports, there seems to be this mentality that the show must go on, but there are days, or situations, when it's just as reasonable to postpone or cancel games. In recent days, a few such cases have made headlines, and the decision to cancel games and bench players has come under criticism.
In Brocton, N.Y., the football team canceled the remainder of the season after running back Damon Janes died as a result of a helmet-to-helmet hit during a game. He was 16. His teammates took a vote and decided they didn't feel right playing without Janes. It was a remarkable decision given that so many of us hear how important it is to return to "normalcy" in times of tragedy, and that returning to work is sometimes valued more than contemplation.
Mourning is hard work. Reflection is more uncomfortable than a familiar routine. Playing on is moving on, getting back into the rush of schedules and practices and game plans and opponents; but saying the game must be played isn't exactly true -- a game is only as important as you make it.
Matt Labrum, the football coach at Union High School in Roosevelt, Utah, suspended his entire team, all 80 players, after reports of cyber-bullying and poor academic performance. It made news because a season is rarely threatened because of character issues. The team will play on, but not before Labrum outlined rules for how players could rejoin the squad. The plan drew national attention, and the community supported the idea that players should be held accountable before they take the field.
Last week, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith played just hours after he was arrested for the second time on suspicion of DUI and before he went into a rehabilitation program. The game against the Colts was important, so important that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was willing to overlook the awful message he was sending by starting Smith.
The NFL is different, it's a business; but at the high school level, sports are supposed to be about building character, a word that seems to be a cliché at times. It's one thing to say the word "character," but harder to live it when marching along to a routine that is so much easier than making the machinery grind to a halt.
In Brocton, the players reflected and took their vote. They are now taking some heat, but they listened to one another and followed their own grieving process. It shows maturity and, I'll just say it, character.
"It feels like there's more to life," Brocton senior Joey Villafrank told the Associated Press. "Before, football used to be life for me; it was the only sport I played. But now I realize that there's more than just playing the game."
And maybe that's the bigger lesson.