A few days ago I was excited for the weekend’s slate of 20-plus basketball games; there was also a slew of football games and NCAA festivities to keep up with. It was going to be a weekend for sports. But then tragedy struck in Newtown, Connecticut: A lone gunman shot and killed his mother and then forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary, murdering 26 of its students and staff.
Shockwaves from the heinous act reverberated across the nation, with news outlets scrambling, speculating, and snatching up eyewitness account after eyewitness account. People and companies outside the spotlight reacted, too. For one, there were updates about the TV networks—not networks like NBC or CBS—but cable networks such as SyFy and ESPN. Variety reported that ESPN had issued an internal memo ordering its staff members not to tweet the word “shooter” or comparable sports jargon that would be deemed inappropriate, and not to tweet about sports in general until Sunday. ESPN also pulled its “Showdown Sunday” label for the weekend’s NFL games. Though the games went on, an unsettled aura draped over every field. Dan Hanzus of NFL.com reported that the NFL asked all home teams to observe a moment of silence before the performance of the national anthem. Amid the quiet, fans held up signs that broadcast their own messages, and some players took matters into their own hands, wearing “S.H.E.S.”—the initials of Sandy Hook Elementary School—on their helmets, cleats, and gloves. Some, like Tennessee Titan Chris Johnson, went as far as to put some of the victims’ names on their shoes.
The Newtown calamity came roughly two weeks after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide, a situation that sparked gun control controversy from figures in the media and sports world (see Bob Costas), and one that would serve, sadly, as a nasty foreshadowing of incidents to come, including the school shooting in Newtown, a shooter meltdown at Newport Beach’s Fashion Island, and a shooting in Las Vegas. In a weekend that, for some, was going to be a relaxing departure into sports, tragedy turned team rivalry into something else, something more than entertainment. Because beneath the many layers of commercialism and competitiveness, games are communal events that bring people together and foster discourse. Sometimes, like this weekend, sports mean a shared experience of grief.