You’ll never catch me acting like my sports radio show is important. Entertaining, fun, goofy, informational, divergent, and energetic? Most of the time. But important? No. And over the last several months, I’ve struggled more and more with the idea that sports are highly insignificant in the world in which we live. I love my job, and I’m known for my spirit and enthusiasm on air. People tell me my upbeat attitude is contagious, that it fuels them overnight or wakes them up in the morning. But how do I muster excitement about football, basketball or any other game when our society seems to be falling apart? How do I generate any kind of passion for sports when my heart is heavy over the senseless tragedies and unspeakable horrors that take place weekly in our nation and around the world? I find myself battling guilt when I shove the pain aside and put on a happy voice to host shows in the midst of turmoil.
It’s been six weeks since the United States woke up to another mass shooting at the hands of a madman–unfathomable suffering, torture, and loss for dozens of families, loved ones, wounded, and survivors. Orlando was torn apart by terror in its own backyard. It was a Sunday, and I spent most of the day watching the news, listening to eyewitness accounts, and praying for victims and those left behind. Later that night, the Penguins captured the Stanley Cup by defeating my favorite hockey team, the San Jose Sharks, in Game 6 of their series. I watched the game, but I absolutely didn’t care.
It’s a rare night that I don’t want to work, and nights featuring huge events are my favorite times to be on the air. But I dreaded sitting down in studio and turning on the microphone that Sunday. I tried to be honest about how I was feeling–numb, confused, angry, sad, heartbroken–and I admitted that it felt all wrong to be talking about hockey. When I took a deep breath and launched into actual sports, my enthusiasm was fake. At some point, I blocked out most of my emotion over Orlando and found a realm where only sports existed, just long enough to get through the show. The human ability to compartmentalize is astounding at times. The way we can block out pain and struggle to cope can be a blessing.
Since Orlando, the challenge to balance social consciousness with sports talk is all too familiar. On back to back days the first week in July, graphic videos emerged from Baton Rouge and St. Paul where African-American men died after being shot by police officers. Later that same week, Dallas law enforcement was ambushed at a protest. Five officers were murdered and several others critically wounded. That Thursday night show was one of the most difficult I’ve ever done. I know I was distracted, and there was very little I could do about it. My heart wasn’t in it because sports didn’t matter in the slightest. Nor did they matter when terrorists drove a truck into a holiday celebration in Nice, killing 84 (including 10 children), or when a triple suicide attack at an Istanbul airport left 47 dead. A hostage crisis in Bangladesh where 20 people died (among them, three American college students); coordinated attacks at a Paris nightclub and stadium, killing 130; strikes at a Brussels airport and metro station, claiming 32 more lives; surprise gunfire at a San Bernardino holiday party, causing 14 deaths–the list goes on and on. Most recently in the US, a Marine war veteran opened fire on Baton Rouge police officers, fatally wounding three of them. The gut-wrenching headlines threaten to overwhelm us.
I wish I knew of some perfect formula to navigate these treacherous and painful events on my show. If only I could open up a textbook that tells me when to address them or how much time to spend talking about them or whether to avoid them altogether. But there are no hard and fast rules to follow. Most often I bring them up and share my emotions before I do anything else, and I frequently apologize for moving onto sports. But when nine people were murdered in a Charleston, South Carolina, church last June, I didn’t touch it the first night on air because I didn’t think I could do it without breaking down. Listeners criticize my approach on social media, saying I should use my platform to lobby for gun control and other political changes OR telling me I should “stick to sports.” Yes, my job is to talk about sports, and I will always honor my employer and my bosses by performing to the best of my ability. But I’m also a human being. I will never “stick to sports” completely because my life and my show are not that one-dimensional.
Most people tell me they want the distraction that sports and sports radio offer. Even for a short time, they welcome a chance to focus on games and stories completely unrelated to the latest tragedy. They thank me for giving them a way to dull the pain, if only temporarily. The night after the five Dallas police officers died, I attended a Mets’ game at Citi Field. I didn’t feel like going, and I choked up when I first saw NYPD officers outside the stadium. But after settling into my seat and soaking in the atmosphere at the ballpark, I sensed that same relief for a few hours. The heartache wasn’t gone, but sports offered a brief respite and chance to breathe. I finally understood why listeners tune into my show after terror attacks and horrific catastrophes.
No, sports don’t matter much when held up against the loss of life. But people matter. A week after the Dallas shooting, a member of that local police force called my show. He spoke about forgiveness and hope and shared his gratefulness to those who’ve embraced his department since the ambush. We all need hope, that light shining in the darkness, and a connection with others who experience the same raw emotions in difficult times. Even when I don’t know exactly what to say or how to say it, my prayer is that my radio show offers a sliver of hope, a ray of light, that human connection. So I will keep showing up and sharing my heart ESPECIALLY when sports don’t matter.