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'It's only a game?' Perhaps that's not always true

By Tom Hardesty | Record-COurier Published: August 17, 2016 12:00 AM
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I knew it was coming, I just didn't know when.

A few weeks after the Cavaliers had won their first NBA championship and snapped the city of Cleveland's 52-year championship drought, after 1.3 million fans had filled the streets of downtown Cleveland for a victory celebration over five decades in the making, after all the confetti had fallen and the cheers had faded away and the revelers had gone back to their regularly scheduled lives, I finally heard the comment I knew was coming from the moment the Cavaliers' Game 7 victory over the Golden State Warriors was complete:

"I don't see what the big deal is, " I was told. "It was just a basketball game."

And there it was, the dreaded "it's only a game" dictum. The same comment I heard following Ohio State's 42-20 victory over Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship game following the 2014 season. The same comment I hear when discussing one of Cleveland's many painful near-misses. The same comment I have heard for as long as I have been following sports, which roughly began in the crib.

Yes, these are just games. But these games, and the athletes and teams that participate in them, are the most powerful agents of unity in our country. There isn't even a close second.

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In a time when too many sinister forces are actively working to divide us in every way imaginable for their own personal and political gain, sports bring us together.

The Cavaliers' victory parade was Exhibit A for how sports bring us together: Over a million people of all races, religions and creeds, standing side by side in celebration of their favorite team.

Sports are the template for how race relations could be and should be in our society. When 110,000 fans fill Ohio Stadium and millions more watch on TV on Saturdays in the fall, the only colors that matter are scarlet and gray. They could care less about the color of the players wearing those uniforms. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, conservative, liberal, Christian, Jew, Muslim or atheist, they are all Buckeyes.

Our Buckeyes.

Just like our Cavaliers. And our Browns. And our Indians.

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And every other team and its fan base everywhere.

An athlete's race, religion, ethnicity, nationality and sexual orientation mean about as much to fans as the color of their eyes.

Jersey color matters, skin color is irrelevant.

Team logo matters, religious symbols are irrelevant.

Civic pride matters, political affiliation is irrelevant.

Imagine if we lived in a world where, every day everywhere, skin color, religion and politics all were irrelevant to the way we treated our fellow human beings and judged their character, where the true measure of a person was based on just that, the person.

That world does exist -- inside football stadiums, basketball arenas and baseball parks. Outside those venues, what passes for leadership in our society never misses an opportunity to point out our differences, effectively segregating us psychologically and emotionally, if not physically. We are prodded to distrust and even dislike those that look different than we do, think differently than we do, worship differently than we do.

Sports serve as a catalyst for harmony in the face of this cultural maelstrom. We don't care that LeBron James is black. We don't care that Francisco Lindor is Hispanic. We don't care that Joe Thomas is white.

We only care that they wear wine and gold, red and blue, orange and brown.

Cleveland's colors. Our colors.

The team environment takes this to an entirely different level, where athletes from all walks of life -- and all corners of the globe -- must come together to work toward a common goal.

College football teams are comprised of 100-plus young men from farms, from the suburbs, from the inner cities, from every demographic and socioeconomic background that exists, and are molded into a tight, cohesive unit that goes to battle together on the field, forging unbreakable bonds that last a lifetime.

Yet breaking the bonds of race, religion and politics that shackle us in ignorance and intolerance.

NBA and Major League Baseball teams feature international rosters of players from all over the world, representing countries that are democratic, countries that are socialist, countries that are communist, countries that are historical allies of the United States, countries that are historical adversaries of the United States.

There are language barriers, cultural barriers and geographical barriers, but nothing that a 3-pointer, slam dunk, double play or home run can't help overcome.

These players share locker rooms together, travel together, room together, eat together, virtually live together for the better part of a year in the hope of winning a championship, yet government leaders can't be bothered to sit in a room for five minutes together in the hope of avoiding nuclear annihilation.

Those that scoff at sports and their importance in our society would do well to learn the lessons that playing, or at least following, sports provide. When Robert Griffin III, who is black, drops back to pass this season for the Browns, he'll be counting on left tackle Joe Thomas, who is white, to protect his blind side. Griffin will trust Thomas to keep him upright, and Thomas will spare no effort to ensure that Griffin stays that way.

Because they wear the same uniform.

That's just the way it is in football. Racial divisions in that sport were largely eradicated a long time ago. An African-American who played for Woody Hayes at Ohio State in the 1970's was asked, long after his playing career had ended, if the legendary coach treated his players differently along racial lines.

"No," said the former player. "White, black, he treated us all the same. Like (crap)."

This, of course, is because sports are performance-based. You are evaluated based on who you are, what you can do and how well you can do it. What you are, what you believe and where you come from carries no significance whatsoever.

Sadly it's the exact opposite outside of the athletic arena, thanks to political leadership that has failed us miserably on both sides of the ideological spectrum. We have been conditioned to judge the book by its cover, rather than reading what's inside. We don't get far enough to see what kind of person someone is or what their contributions to society may be, because we can't get past the labels we pin on them.

We shut it down as soon as we hear words like Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal, Christian, Muslim, black, white, or any other classification we can use to pigeonhole someone -- and further divide ourselves.

It's not as if all members of a team are like-minded. Of course they're not, and that's the point. They're all different, yet they make it work for the greater good so that they can reach their goals.

Sports are the great equalizer -- and the great unifier. In fact, fan bases refer to themselves as singular entities: Buckeye Nation, Cavalier Nation, Browns Nation, etc. They are a collective, bound together by the players who wear their team's colors.

And only those colors.

When the Cavaliers defeated the Warriors in Game 7 in Oakland last month, LeBron James, in a postgame interview on the floor moments after the game, shouted "Cleveland, this is for you!"

He meant us. All of us, everyone who roots for, supports, and lives and dies with the Cavaliers. No labeling, no pigeon-holing, no typecasting. Just Cavalier Nation.

All For One -- literally.

The Cavs' championship is just the latest illustration of the impact sports can have on the fabric of society. Yes, they won a game, but it wasn't just a game.

It never is.

Email: thardesty@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9446

Twitter: @TomHardestyRC


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