As someone growing up in a suburb in the Northeast, I did not know a single person who owned guns. My family was remarkably averse to their presence, and to the very idea of them — for protection, for hunting, for anything. So too were most in my neighborhood so quick to label anyone who carried an arm as a hick, or a redneck.
But since starting college, I have found that the moral absolutism with which I arrived would be better served in less stark portrayals. At Yale, I have many friends on the skeet and trap team, all of whom I greatly respect. How am I to reconcile, particularly now, the presence of my friends on a team that, on the surface, seems to trivialize such a serious matter as gun use?
The friends I have defend skeet and trap as a competitive sport. As my close friend Billy McGahan ’20 told me, skeet and trap is “incredibly mentally challenging and requires an immense level of training and focus.” And while it took one viewing of the first scene of Saving Private Ryan for me to never want to be anywhere near a gun, I also needed just one conversation with Billy to know that not everyone who enjoys shooting a gun deserves a derisive label.
In past columns, I have addressed how the athletic field is the levelest playing field. Time and again, I have harped on the very fact that there is but one barrier to playing sports: skill. As I’ve written before, “If you can play, you can play.” As a result, the range of people who play sports is infinite.
A team is a unit in which success is predicated on everyone’s ability to tolerate internal differences of opinion. We always hear that a team is successful because of its chemistry. And while that chemistry manifests itself in harmony on the court, what is seen in games is built in practice, on road trips, within team meetings. This means that the differences of opinions cannot create divides within a team during the long hours spent together. With that said, sports are not just a place where ideology is sacrificed in the name of a greater goal.
At their worst, sports can awaken us to a reckoning with reality.
Throughout my adolescent soccer career, I constantly found myself on teams with and against players who had never met a Jewish person before. When one opponent called me “a dirty Jew” during a game, I didn’t let his remark get to me until the final whistle blew. But, upon returning home, I told my mother that I had previously thought the history of anti-Semitism was just that: history. It was the first time that I was violently jerked from the strange utopia of my liberal northeastern suburb.
But it was a moment that I, paradoxically, remember fondly. It was defining for me. I learned about the nature of minority, of the reality of hatred and of the power of rising above those who seek to bring you down.
At their best, sports can serve as an enlightening influence.
A young teammate once asked me why I didn’t have horns. Another frequently remarked after anything unfortunate occurred — like dropping his ice cream cone — that the event was “so Jewish.” I will never forget confronting these individuals and asking them, “All you have ever known about Jewish people you have heard from a single story; I am the only Jewish person you have ever met. Is that how you think of me? Am I so evil that I must have horns? Am I indicative of everything negative that happens in your life?”
Never again did I hear either of them utter such words.
Therefore, at their worst, sports are a place where different people from disparate places with opposing beliefs collide; yet even these moments, I thoroughly believe, have positive outcomes. And, at their best, sports are a place where we are lifted from our single story biases and grow from encountering those who differ from us.
In many ways, this is also the purpose of college: to come in contact with those with whom we disagree, to benefit from arguing about our disagreements and learning from the views of others.
And this is why the skeet and trap team serves as a moral conundrum. Can this narrative of sports be true of a gun sport, especially in the wake of the massacre in Florida? Can the most divisive symbol in our country still present us with a place where our differences of opinions can be put aside for the greater good of a collective whole — the team? Or where our differences can collide to form something better than their constituent parts, or where we can learn from those with whom we disagree?
Most skeet and trap teams have acquired their money through grants from organizations like the National Rifle Association. In this way, skeet and trap teams, like our own, can be viewed as pawns manipulated by pro-gun organizations aimed at perpetuating a gun culture. Yale’s team, in fact, received a $20,000 grant from the Newtown, Connecticut-based lobbying group the National Shooting Sports Foundation. However, the year after the Sandy Hook shooting, Yale’s team stopped accepting grants from the NSSF and other lobbying groups. That is to say, since before every current member stepped foot at Yale, the team ceased receiving money from these organizations. Are we to blame a group for a past it didn’t control?
The skeet and trap team — a sports team I encountered while in college — encapsulates the purpose of college and a defining characteristic of sports: not in spite of, but because we might disagree with the very existence of the team on which they play, we would be better served evaluating the club as series of complex individuals, and engage with them on the merits of shooting for sport.
Billy McGahan and his family don’t consider themselves hunters, though they have hunted. They don’t own guns, but they are not opposed to them generally. And yet, the McGahans also run a remarkable homeless shelter in Atlanta. Only in college could I come into contact with such a person, so different from me, who in no way shape or form fits any mold into which we might try to box a southerner, a gun owner, a hunter or anybody. Billy comes from a remarkable family. He is a remarkable friend. I know now to not let his presence on the skeet and trap team take away from that.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org