The diversionary power of sports   

Updated: October 13, 2008, 4:06 PM ET

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When my buddy Doug invited me to a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign recently, I jumped at the chance to go. After weeks of enduring what some are referring to as "football" at the Big House and Ford Field, not being in Michigan over a fall weekend was a welcome change.

The Human Rights Campaign is the largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization in the country, and its annual dinners tend to draw some of the biggest names in politics, business and entertainment. Speakers such as Sen. Hillary Clinton spoke out against hate crimes and fighting the anti-gay-marriage initiative, Proposition 8, in California. It was a pretty powerful evening.

And yet -- and I'm a little embarrassed to admit this -- it wasn't quite powerful enough to keep me from my first love. That's right; I was checking football scores on my cell phone. Every so often, I would casually bow my head at our table and feverishly scroll to see what Michigan did (lost to Illinois), if Vandy could upset Auburn (it did) and if my alma mater, Western Michigan, could remain undefeated (ditto). After the score check, I would lift my head and pretend as if I was present for every word that was said.

I was sure someone would eventually catch me.

I was right. It was the man across from me, Dennis.

He saw what I was up to and with a surprised look on his face asked "Can you believe Vandy won?" and I smiled and simply said, "No." Like me, Dennis and his son Logan were busy keeping up with college football instead of focusing on the parade of important topics addressed from the podium. But while my actions were insensitive, if not downright inexcusable, Dennis' and Logan's were more of a necessity. This week marks the 10-year observation of the death of Matthew Shepard -- Dennis' son and Logan's older brother. Given the event, you can only imagine how many times Matthew's violent death in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998 was brought up to them that evening. When your family becomes the face of a movement, a little score-checking during dinner could be just the thing to temporarily take your mind off life's tragedies.

I used to think we sportswriters gave the field we cover too much credit for helping the nation heal from catastrophic events such as Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. I am a bit of a political junkie and tend to be fairly task-oriented. A problem comes up? I want to talk about it until it is solved. I underestimated the relevance simply having something else to talk about played in the healing process. But that's all Dennis, Logan and I talked about after the event -- something else. Be it Wyoming football, Michigan, spread offenses, etc. Logan told me he worked at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and that was the most time we spent on the matter. We all understood that even Michael Phelps has to come up for air sometimes.

Ten years after Matthew's death ripped many of our hearts out, the most successful sign of social progress is Ellen DeGeneres' return to television. Any other measure is met with a "defend the American family" mantra, as if families such as the Shepards are not worth defending. I remember being a young reporter, standing in the middle of a newsroom as the facts surrounding Matthew's attack made their way across the airwaves. I didn't cry, but I did get angry. And I still do. But as much as life's inequities infuriate me, the presidential campaign agitates me and the economy frightens me, that evening reminded me that living in a constant state of unrest is not healthy and won't solve anything. The human spirit requires balance, and I suspect for many of us that balance comes from sports. I don't know what non-sports fans do to unwind, but it's hard to imagine it compares to the escape that comes from checking scores at a black-tie fundraiser when it seems everyone else in the room is watching you … and saying "I'm sorry."

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Page 2. He can be reached at l_granderson@yahoo.com.


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