The Importance of Sports

It’s no secret that the Eastern Conference Finals have been fairly boring.  The Boston Celtics lead the Orlando Magic 2-0 and are returning home to Boston where Paul Pierce was quoted as saying, “Y’all hear me?  We’re coming home to close it out!”

The Western Conference Finals have been even less competitive as the Los Angeles Lakers opened up a can on the Phoenix Suns in both games 1 and 2.  With the Celtics and Lakers on an unwavering crash course straight to the NBA Finals, I must look to other topics in the NBA to keep myself entertained.  My quest has led to me to analyze a recent political statement made by Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, and furthermore, attempt to determine whether professional sports can play a role in other facets of American life beyond the limited sphere of entertainment.  My preliminary answer is that sports does play a critical role in almost every facet of America, but you have to keep reading to find out why (reading is achieving!)

Every year the NBA launches the “Noche Latina” program which is essentially a marketing gimmick to either appeal to or attract Latino fans.  NBA teams with a large Latino fan base switch out their standard jerseys for new ones with a unique and spicy Spanish flare.  The NBA apparently needs to invest in an English-to-Spanish Dictionary because the jerseys simply add a “los”, “el”, or “nueva” to the front of an English word.  (Why not actually translate the entire team name instead of just adding a Spanish word?)  But the NBA’s lack of bilingual ability is beside the point, what is more important is the fact that the Noche Latina program usually does not receive as much national recognition as it recently has.

Before game 2 of the Suns and Spurs Western Conference Semi-Final series, Suns owner Robert Sarver decided his team would wear its “Los Suns” jerseys.  The decision initially seemed harmless because the game was to be played on Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday.  When asked about his reasoning for wearing the “Los Suns” jerseys Sarver originally confirmed his innocent intentions, Our players and organization felt that wearing our ‘Los Suns’ jerseys on Cinco de Mayo was a way for our team and our organization to honor our Latino community and the diversity of our league, the State of Arizona, and our nation…” Pretty politically correct isn’t it?  The typical boring response owners give to the media.  If Sarver had shut up here it would not have been a national story, but his mouth kept going and his strong political statement concerning immigration became evident.

A current political hot-button issue is the new immigration law, Senate Bill 1070, passed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.  The bill makes it a misdemeanor for immigrants to be within the state of Arizona without proper documentation.  The original version of the bill required immigrants to carry registration documents with them at all times because police officers could request proof of status based on a “reasonable suspicion” that the individual was in the United States illegally.  However, Gov. Brewer recently modified the bill and police officers are now prohibited from requesting proof of status based on an individual’s race.  Instead, an individual must violate a municipal code before a police officer can request proof of status.

The controversial Arizona immigration law has received both praise and criticism both in the United States and abroad.  The debate and analysis of a new and controversial bill concerning immigration should be expected from sources such as newspapers, U.N. human rights experts, Fox News, or CNN.  When Glenn Beck diagramed the bill on a chalkboard, discussed U.S. History, and began crying, I was not surprised.  When Suns owner Robert Sarver made a strong political statement concerning the immigration bill, I was surprised.

In one brief statement Sarver used sports to impact politics, “The frustration with the federal government’s failure to deal with the issue of illegal immigration resulted in passage of a flawed state law. However intended, the result of passing this law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into question, and Arizona’s already struggling economy will suffer even further setbacks at a time when the state can ill-afford them.” In two sentences Sarver managed to bash the federal government, criticize the Arizona state government, and accuse the bill of violating basic principles of equal rights. One owner, one team, one jersey, one sport, and two sentences, brought national attention to a political issue.  The Western Conference Semi-finals became the platform for immigration debate.  For example, during game 2, Reverend Al Sharpton, wearing a “Los Suns” Steve Nash jersey, (shouldn’t he wear a Barbosa jersey?) led a march protesting the immigration bill that began at the Phoenix Suns stadium and ended at the Arizona capital.

American sports are a flexible interpretation of the constantly transitioning culture.  When our culture begins to change or shift, sports is there to initiate that change.    For example, our public school systems were not de-segregated until the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.  But sports remained ahead of the curve as Jackie Robinson debuted on the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  Stressed by the overwhelming pressure to win, owners will do whatever it takes to create a successful franchise.  That results in teams like Dan Haskin’s 1965-66 Texas Western Miners, the first “all-black” basketball team to reach the NCAA Finals.

Furthermore, sports give us a sense of peace and normality in the face of fear.  One of my most treasured sports memories occurred just days after the horrific tragedy of 9/11.  After the towers fell, Americans stood up, brushed off the dust, wiped away the tears, and sports took center-stage.  On September 21, 2001, the New York Mets played the Atlanta Braves in the first professional sporting event in New York City since 9/11.  With one man on and the Braves leading 2-1 in the bottom of the 8th, catcher Mike Piazza crushed a home run lifting all New Yorkers into ecstatic cheer.  For one brief moment, while Piazza slowly jogged around the bases, sports served as an escape and brought a little joy to those who were so deeply affected by 9/11.

In America, sports play an integral role in every facet of our lives.  The stadiums are buildings where relationships develop and life-long memories are formed.  America wasn’t ready for integration, but Jackie Robinson was.  America wasn’t ready for an “all-black” basketball team, but Dan Haskins was.  America was afraid and sad, but one swing of a bat brought a smile to everyone’s face.  Perhaps Latino’s in Arizona were uncertain about their future, but Sarver and the Suns let them know the hometown team cared.  I could not disagree more with the statement that sports are simply entertainment.  In my opinion, sports are one of the most vital parts of American culture.  As our culture transitions, sports carves away at the fear and animosity associated with change.  Sports are whatever we need them to be, and in many circumstances, we need more than entertainment.