Why Sport Matters

Sport matters, sport has an importance over and above the hype usually associated with it, and sport can never be dismissed as trivial

Gregory Wilcox

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Sport matters, sport has an importance over and above the hype usually associated with it, and sport can never be dismissed as trivial.

With me being a sports nut and getting paid to write about it, you’re probably thinking: ‘you would say that’. The fact that this column is appearing on a site surrounded by sports articles that will be read by millions of people also adds to the fact that stating ‘sport matters’ isn’t exactly a moment of profound insight.

But it does matter, and not in the obvious ‘it’s exciting to watch and provides drama on a par with anything written by Shakespeare or Le Carre’ kind of way. Rather because sport has the power to hold a mirror to mankind and show us who we are, in a way few other pursuits can.

Never was that more obvious than during the past week. Colin Kaepernick, Den Haag fans, Everton Football Club and Alex Zanardi all illustrated the power of sport to move, challenge preconceptions and provoke thought.

The San Francisco 49ers’ Kaepernick is one of the best quarterbacks around, but he’s now better known for ushering in a movement that seeks to improve social justice and racial equality for black people across the USA.

In refusing to stand and sing the national anthem before pre-season and now regular season games Kaepernick has invited scorn and ridiculous questions about his patriotism. But he’s ignored that and in doing so kept the spotlight on civil rights across America in a way many others – politicians and writers, among them– would have struggled following the upheavals during the summer.

He’s also inspired many other NFL stars, such as Brandon Marshall and Jelani Jenkins, to take a stand as well and claims he will continue his protest until he sees significant progress towards racial equality.

Den Haag and Everton football clubs both did their bit to prove that in a game awash with obscene amounts of money, morals and common decency still have a role to play in the beautiful game.

The Dutch club visited Feyenoord for a league match knowing that the guests of honor were children from Rotterdam’s Sophia Children’s Hospital, the oldest children’s hospital in the Netherlands. Den Haag fans turned up armed with thousands of soft toys that they threw to the children during the match. It was a sight as spectacular as it was heartwarming.

The very next day Everton visited Sunderland in the Premier League and left not only with an impressive 3-0 win but also $261,000 poorer. That’s because the club donated that hefty sum to Bradley Lowery, a Sunderland-mad five-year-old who needs nearly $1million for life-saving cancer treatment in the USA.

Then there’s Alex Zanardi, who in winning gold in the H5 road time trial at the Rio Paralympics proved that when it comes to sport, words like inspirational, brave, gutsy and legend, can occasionally be stirred by actions on the sporting field rather than come from the pen of a marketing man.

The former F1 and CART driver won on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the crash that resulted in him having both legs amputated. Not only that, his heart stopped seven times, he spent 50 minutes with under a litre of blood in his body and had the last rites read.

After crossing the line in Brazil, Zanardi gave a brilliant interview in which he dispelled any notion that the Paralympics exist merely to allow people to give a patronising ‘well done’ pat on the head to those with disability.

The Italian said: “Normally I don’t thank God for these type of things as I believe God has more important stuff to worry about, but today is too much, I had to raise my eyes and thank him. I feel very lucky, I feel my life is a never-ending privilege.”

His performance coupled with his speech will surely change the way others, including those who aren’t able bodied, view disability.

Kicking balls, jumping high, running, driving or cycling very fast have always been dismissed as ultimately trivial in the grand scheme of things; as just a bit of fun. Of course sport is viewed as enjoyable to watch and sometimes to play, but when it comes to importance, it lags way behind ‘higher things’ such as the arts and politics.

After years in which the sporting discussion can be said to have revolved around corrupt governing bodies, excessive prize money, inflated wages, drug cheats and overhyped marketing spiel, it’s perhaps easy to see why sport is often derided and brushed aside as self-indulgent nonsense.

But in Kaepernick’s principled stand, Everton and Den Haag’s compassion, and Zanardi’s bravery and brilliance it’s equally easy to see why that viewpoint is absurd.

Sport has the power to show mankind at its best, most sincere, most decent and most inspirational. It captures the attention of billions and, as with FIFA’s recognition of Palestine, can and does make statements that are seemingly way beyond those in power elsewhere.

Chief Justice Earl Warren, the American judge who investigated John F Kennedy’s assassination, once said that when he picked up his morning paper, he always turned to the sports pages first “because they record man’s successes. The front page records only his failures.”

The past week has proved how wise he was.