Sports. Now before you go complaining about how sports don’t matter and why anyone would pay attention to simple games that have no importance in the real world, I want you to think about three profound, transformational sporting events of the past decade:
2001 World Series. New York City is recovering from the terrible attack on 9/11, mourning the loss of thousands dead and wondering about the future of the Big Apple, if terrorism would become a mainstay. The Yankees have been demolished in the first two games of the Championship and are not looking good. Yet, as the Yankees returned to Yankee Stadium, louder cheers were never heard in New York than on those nights as the Yankees won three straight one-run games to take the lead in the World Series. Never before have World Series wins been such a boost to a city’s psyche. Those wins symbolized a city’s rise from the ashes.
Speaking of depression, Boston before 2004 was a depressed city. Certainly not as bad as New York after 9/11, but any Bostonian would tell you that there was just a feeling of hopelessness. The Celtics hadn’t won in forever, and the Red Sox were in the midst of an 86-year drought of a World Series Championship. Elderly Bostonians were worried they’d die before they see the Red Sox win again. Even worse, in the 2004 ALCS, the Yankees had stomped the Red Sox to take a 3–0 lead and put the Red Sox on the brink of elimination. Yet, the Red Sox came back in dramatic fashion; they won the next eight games in a row, sending a bewildered Yankees team packing and winning the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Boston has never partied so hard. Riots, tears, wild celebrations like never seen before. And the rejuvenating effects can even be seen today — Boston is just one of those places where the people are happy. Telling Boston fans that there sports don’t matter is asking for a beating.
And this phenomenon is not peculiar to the U.S. In fact, sports probably have greater meaning outside the U.S. of A than we realize. In the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, an entire nation joined together to support their team’s effort. Germany, a country with a troubling and divisive history, had a tough road into the 21st century. Yet as the nation hosted the World Cup in 2006, Germans truly felt a resurgent pride in their country as the German national team rode excellent play to the semifinals. The entire German nation was on pins and needles watching its team, and the world saw German unity in its most positive light since perhaps the time of Otto von Bismarck.
For those of you who don’t think sports matter, try telling the Germans at the World Cup, or New Yorkers after 9/11, or Boston fans after the 2004 World Series that sports don’t matter. They do matter. They are the dramatic portrayal of athletes committed to excellence, and it is their commitment, resolve, determination and hard work that gives the rest of us inspiration. If nothing else, sports can give us something to feel good about, especially after our darkest moments of pain and disunity. The 2000s reaffirmed the importance of sports as more than just a pleasant distraction from politics and suffering, but an antidote to our agonies and divisions.
And sports became more important in the past decade as more and more people could watch them, and watch them better. From plasma screen TVs to live sports updates on cell phones, palm pilots, and iPhones, the technological revolution has changed the way we watch sports, which are more accessible than ever. Technology has even altered the way sports are played, as instant replay and challenges are becoming more common in ensuring plays are called correctly.
The 2000s held dramatic athletes, like any decade in sports’ long history, but something about this crew was special. Michael Phelps’s barrage of gold medals might mark him the greatest Olympian ever. Ronaldinho of Brazil and Ronaldo of Portugal wowed millions with their control of the soccer ball. Basketball and tennis witnessed a golden age, as the three dominant youth of b-ball (Lebron, D-Wade, Carmelo) demonstrate remarkable play while the many Federer-Nadal matchups have invigorated audiences like never before. The Manning brothers won Super Bowls and Usain Bolt became the fastest man ever.
But our decade in sports had a dark side, perhaps the darkest side in any decade of sports. Scandals rocked baseball and basketball. We had A-Rod, Barry Bonds, Ron Artest, Roger Clemens, Tim Donaghy, Marion Jones, Kobe Bryant and now even Tiger Woods. The integrity of our players and officials have been called into question. Fans don’t know if they can trust their athletes anymore, if they believe them, if they can consider them heroes. Perhaps the lack of integrity and honesty are more representative of our society as a whole than just sports.
Yet the decade fittingly comes to an end with LEBRON, or King James as many like to call him. Lebron is leading a do-or-die season in Cleveland, yet what happens off the court in the 2010 “Summer of Lebron” could prove to be more important. Lebron is, unquestionably, the greatest overall athlete in the world. No human being who has ever watched him can possibly contemplate how he does the things he does. And no human being in the world could possibly run faster, jump higher, and muscle through to the basket as Lebron does on the basketball court. Lebron is an athlete that will define a generation, and his decision in 2010 of where to play could alter the course of basketball and sports history.
The new decade also brings the 2010 World Cup. As the United States rises in the ranks of soccer greats, having defeated Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup, Americans will see in South Africa this summer just how important soccer is to the rest of the world. While American sports loyalties are divided among several sports, many other nations have nothing but soccer to rely on, and national pride and national mood are dependent on their team’s performance at the World Cup. Expect soccer to become more important for the U.S. in 2010.
As the decade comes to a close, it is now more evident than ever that sports are an essential part of our existence, an inspiration capable of bringing hope and optimism to the common person caught in political fracas. Since the days of 776 B.C., when the ancient Greeks held the first Olympics, athletic contests have served as a key element of human life, an opportunity to admire and reward excellence. Sports do matter, and they always will.