A lot of us fell in love with sports during a simpler time, when it truly was an escape from the real world. Some fell in love with sports because it was an escape from the real world. For a few hours, at least, worries about things such as jobs, family and health played second fiddle to the very important issue of whether “our” team would win.
Of course, the lines between the real world and every other world have now all but disappeared. Those lines had been slowly blurring, like a baseline during a ballgame, but everything from drug scandals to sex scandals to the horrors of the Boston Marathon bombings and the Navy Yard shootings put paid to the notion that sports is somehow separate from real life, whatever that is. I’m not even sure “real life” exists anymore, but let’s leave that to the sociologists.
Sports and real life collided this week when it appeared football games between Navy and Air Force and Army and Boston College were in peril because of the government shutdown. The Defense Department, however, eventually gave the go-ahead because the games will be financed using no government funds. Which is all well and good, but should the games be played when 800,000 government workers have been sent home with no pay?
Sports are often used as the elixir to soothe our collective national pain. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sporting events were a temporary but necessary distraction from the deluge of bad news. After the Boston Marathon bombings, Yankees fans paused in the third inning for a moment of silence before sending a message of support to their often-hated Boston counterparts by singing Fenway Park staple “Sweet Caroline.” It was a nice moment.
But are sports a panacea to life’s ills, or a placebo? And when a sporting event collides with the problem it is supposed to soothe — as in the case of the service academy games and the government shutdown — is either a panacea or placebo even appropriate?
The Naval Academy has a big day planned Saturday, with the 50th anniversary of its Cotton Bowl team being feted. Roger Staubach, one of Navy’s two Heisman Trophy winners, will be in attendance along with many of his surviving teammates. The tribute will be wonderful and likely very moving, especially to Navy personnel. It would have been very hard to undo all that planning and move the game to a different date — and it would have cost the Navy athletic department $4 million, according to Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk.
But a football game’s logistics and price tag should be the last thing on everyone’s mind as this shutdown drags on. The National Institutes of Health, for instance, is turning away people seeking experimental treatments, 200 a week for as long as the shutdown lasts. These are problems that need to be solved.
I don’t wish a $4 million hit on anyone, athletic department or not. But this town is taking a hit of millions of dollars a day. Why is a football game causing so much hand-wringing in comparison to just about everything else? United Airlines even offered to fly the Air Force football team to Annapolis for Saturday’s game gratis, a nice but perhaps misplaced gesture. If private corporations want to help during the furlough, there are better ways of helping those directly affected by it than transporting a football team.
On Saturday, some people will get a three-hour escape from the weight of the government shutdown, but that’s all it is: three hours. Then all the inconveniences and stresses of the shutdown will come rushing back.
We probably expect too much from sports as a balm to all our problems. There is nothing wrong with escaping into the television or the stands on a Saturday afternoon to take our minds off our worries. But at a time when Washington is nearly shuttered, when World War II veterans have to climb barriers to get to the monuments dedicated to their service, these games just look wrong. Postponing them would not help end the shutdown, but playing them shows some misplaced priorities.
For more by Tracee Hamilton, go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton.