Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 26, 2015

A Bountiful Thanksgiving For Sports Fans

Across the country families gather together, in some cases even willingly, for a day that begins with Macy’s balloons and ends with a surfeit of NFL action. In between everyone pretends to enjoy the dry turkey and Aunt Edna’s insipid green bean casserole, even as they hope that ornery Uncle Fred limits himself to just a couple scotch and waters. Yet while the beginning of the year-end holiday season may sometimes strain them, it generally does not break familial bonds of affection, bound as they are like the very union itself by mystic chords of memory. So with the fervent hope that all readers have survived Thanksgiving in good spirits, we take a few moments to consider the events for which, and the people for whom, sports fans should give thanks this year.

Those fortunate enough to count as their heroes any of the teams or individuals who have ascended to the peak of their sport are of course grateful for their champions. Here in New England followers of the Patriots have reason to be happy, as do the Midwestern fans of the Royals and Blackhawks, and the Bay area faithful who cheer on the Golden State Warriors. But while it is sometimes easy to forget, our games are not just about winning; and a look back on the past year offers many things to appreciate beyond the names of the newest title holders.

So Patriots fans are grateful for Malcolm Butler, the rookie cornerback whose goal line interception of a Russell Wilson pass in the final seconds of February’s Super Bowl sealed New England’s win over Seattle. But they are equally thankful to Richard Berman, the U.S. District Court judge who vacated the NFL’s suspension of quarterback Tom Brady in an opinion that excoriated the league’s ham-handed investigation and disciplinary process in the vastly overblown Deflategate affair. One would hope that Roger Goodell might take the judge’s criticisms to heart, though there is yet little evidence that such is the case.

Assuming the good people of Missouri and Queens are willing to share, fans of the Great Game from coast to coast should give thanks to the Royals and to the Mets as well, for providing a dramatic and enjoyable World Series, one that was much closer than the four games to one outcome would indicate. In the Royals baseball has a championship team that is a throwback to a time when games were won with heart and guile. Kansas City batters didn’t hit a home run after Game 1, but timely hitting, heads up base running, steady pitching and a refusal to quit were more than enough to win a title.

If this year’s World Series winner reminds fans of an earlier time, then it should also remind those of us old enough to be thankful for having been able to watch Yogi Berra and Ernie Banks play. The Great Game lost both of these legends this year, Banks in its first days and Berra as the longest season was coming to a close. Mr. Cub never won a championship while with ten Yogi had a ring for each finger. But that difference couldn’t mask their common love for the game and the joy they had playing it, there for all to see every time either one took the field.

There was plenty to be thankful for outside of the four major North American team sports as well. Fans of the world’s most popular sport should be grateful to the U.S. Justice Department. Last spring our government indicted fourteen FIFA officials and marketing executives on corruption charges, hopefully marking the beginning of the end of years of self-enrichment by leaders of the beautiful game’s major governing body. On the pitch we Americans give thanks to head coach Jill Ellis and the members of the U.S. women’s national team. At the Women’s World Cup in Canada they silenced critics and doubters with a display of the awesome power hidden in the phrase “play like a girl.”

But we should also appreciate the grace and unity displayed by the Lionesses of Team England, who rallied together in the face of the most agonizing possible loss. In the closing minutes of a tied semifinal match against heavily favored Japan, Laura Bassett’s desperate attempt to break up a Japanese rush by launching the ball over the end line instead deposited it into the English net for a crushing own goal. Amid their tears the English players and fans gave their full support to their heartbroken defender, who had played on after sustaining a black eye from an elbow to the face earlier in the tournament. Three days later at the same stadium in Edmonton the Lionesses won the tournament’s third place match, making England the top-finishing European team and marking the best World Cup performance by an English team, male or female, in half a century.

Golf aficionados are thankful for Jordan and Jason, Rory and Rickie, Lydia and Lexi, and Inbee and Stacey.  They are all reminders of the glory of youth, renewing a sport and moving old heroes from center stage as they do so.

Horse racing fans owe great gratitude to American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in nearly four decades. But they are also in debt to owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert, who chose to run their great horse on into the fall, giving a fading sport a hero of rock star proportions, and in the process establishing racing’s Grand Slam with a final commanding victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Tennis fans surely are thankful for Serena Williams, who dominated the sport and came ever so close to winning all four Grand Slam events. But their gratitude should extend to her decision to play at Indian Wells last March as well. Neither Williams sister had played at the event since Serena was the target of ugly racist heckling during the final in 2001, one day after a semifinal between Serena and Venus was cancelled because of an injury to the older of the two. When she stepped back onto a court she had last left in tears Williams was greeted by a prolonged ovation, and fans everywhere were reminded of the awesome power of forgiveness.

The capacity of our games to go beyond the court or field or rink was again on display just days ago. Four nights after the terrorist atrocities in Paris, the French national team kept a date for a friendly match against England at London’s Wembley Stadium. Forty-four players from two long-time rivals came onto the pitch together, and they and more than 70,000 in the stands joined in singing “La Marseillaise” with one voice.

Performances great and moments profound, including some not obviously so in the moment; these are the things that every sports fan give thanks for on this November day. Most of all we are grateful for the joy that comes from being a fan; for the way our games allow us to cast aside our everyday troubles for a bit and revel in the timeless action before us. Happy Thanksgiving!

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