How Sports Saved 2016
Samuel S. Chen l December 30, 2016
This afternoon’s Music City Bowl will feature two teams playing for someone other than themselves. The Tennessee Volunteers have dedicated their season to their school’s legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, who lost her battle to Alzheimer’s disease earlier this year. On the other side of the field, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are playing for senior punter Sam Foltz, who tragically died in a car accident this past summer.
Both teams have worn decals honoring their legends this season. Yet, through tragedy, these teams have set the example that American so desperately lacked this year.
The Year Decency Died
Throughout this year’s primary election cycle, numerous individuals—Democrats and Republicans—told me how much they admired my boss, Ohio Governor John Kasich, because he was “the only adult in the room”. While I was proud that he held that standard and that so many admired him for it, I was also appalled that our standard for president had fallen so far that mere decency was now the determining factor. We were unable to have any conversation on the crucial issues that face our country because we were too busy arguing over decency—and that was only when we weren’t arguing over hand sizes and Bernie Sanders’ religion.
No one—from the candidates to the press to the social media warriors—seemed exempt from the ensuing trainwreck formerly known as civility. 2016 was the year that our leaders ceased being good examples; it was the year that decency died.
For this politico, it was another place of maddening frustration that turned out to be a haven of solace: sports. Here are just some stories—all from 2016—that remind us of those virtues that society has otherwise forgotten.
Equated with weakness, compassion is not commonly applauded in politics, in the corporate world, or almost anywhere in society anymore. With over 800 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns, and a ticket to the Orange Bowl, few would call Florida State wide receiver Travis Rudolph weak.
Yet, Rudolph’s biggest headline this year was his friendship with a middle school student named Bo Paske.
When several members of the Seminoles’ football team visited a middle school this past August of this year, Rudolph noticed one student who sat alone at lunch. He asked if he could join him and Bo said, “Sure, why not?” Someone snapped a picture of the two and sent it to Bo’s mom, who then posted it to social media. Turns out, Bo has autism and often eats lunch alone.
Bo has since become a part of the Seminoles’ team, joining them at games and getting his own jersey. He even traveled to St. Louis to accept the Stan Musial Award for Sportsmanship on behalf of his new hero: Travis Rudolph.
Inundated with marketing clichés like “What can brown do for you?” and “Have it your way”, the self-seeking, on-demand society in which we live has a short-term memory.
When the MLB playoffs began this October, 24-year old Ryan Merritt was pitching in the Arizona Instructional League. A few weeks later, he was on a plane to Toronto to pitch the Cleveland Indians into the World Series. Up until this point, Merritt’s stat line read like that of a prospect: one start and eleven major league innings. He took the mound—on the road—with that stat line and the World Series on the line.
Merritt threw 4 1/3 shutout innings and pitched the Indians into the World Series.
Discovering that Cleveland’s newest hero was engaged, Tribe fans found his and his fiancée Sarah’s wedding registry and proceeded to buy his entire registry. Countless pizza rollers and muffin tins began showing up on Merritt’s doorstep. Humbled, Merritt joked that there was nothing left for his friends to purchase.
Honesty and Fairness
“Win at all costs” is a motto believed, if not outright declared, in political campaigns. Everything else is cast secondary to victory.
In the Hopman Cup in January of this year, international star Lleyton Hewitt had a serve against American Jack Sock go out of bounds and called fault. As he prepared for his second serve, Sock called to Hewitt: “That was in, if you want to challenge it.” A stunned Hewitt stared at his opponent while the bewildered line judge had one word for Sock: “Really?!”
Sock was right and Hewitt won the point. But Sock won the applause of the stadium, the respect of his opponent, and the admiration of fans around the world, as the announcer declared, “Good on you, Jack Sock!”
The selfish ambition that has marked our society has made the notion of team virtually null and void. In that mindset, teams exist for the sole purpose of winning.
In May, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was seen cheering for wide receiver teammate Randall Cobb. Not an unusual sight, except when you consider that no NFL games are played in May. Or in an arena. Or at a graduation.
As Cobb returned to the University of Kentucky to become the first person in his family to graduate college, Rodgers was there, in the stands, cheering on his teammate. It wasn’t an event initially captured by the press, but by cell phone cameras and told through Twitter. No points, no trophies, no Super Bowl rings—just two teammates celebrating one diploma.
Perhaps most telling about our character is not how we treat our friends, but how we treat our opponents—an idea that the “win at all costs” mentality doesn’t even consider.
Last year, I was at the game where Baylor quarterback Seth Russell’s outstanding season was suddenly interrupted by a neck fracture. I watched in horror as his season—his last in college—came to another abrupt end in Oklahoma with a gruesome ankle injury.
Initially, no one seemed to notice Russell was injured, but as he lay on the ground staring at ankle, it was two OU players motioning to the Baylor sideline and calling for the medical staff to attend to their fallen opponent. As Russell was helped into a cart, a line of Sooners, including OU quarterback Baker Mayfield, stood by his side to wish him well.
Or consider the response from the Ohio State Buckeyes when visiting Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr. took a hit and didn’t get back up. As the medical team cut off Armstrong’s jersey--unveiling a SF27 shirt in memory of teammate Sam Foltz--the Horseshoe burst into cheers of “Tommy! Tommy!” in support of the Huskers’ quarterback. As Armstrong was carted off, he managed to give a thumbs up to the crowd, which responded with a standing ovation for their opponent.
Life is Bigger than Winning
Imagine if these stories came not from the playing field but from the political arena this past year. How would our politics be different? Imagine if we acted like those athletes. How would our communities be different? How would society be different?
After Nebraska punter Sam Foltz’s tragic death this past summer, the Husker community came together and exemplified one principle so often forgotten in our unparalleled desire to win: that life is bigger than winning.
Joining them were their opponents, as each weak teams took their turn to honor Foltz and embrace his teammates. They placed flowers on the 27-yard line (Foltz wore #27) and presented his teammates with Foltz jerseys from their respective schools, as if to say Foltz one of their own. Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianon even changed his number to 27 to honor Foltz.
In the season opener, the Huskers took a three-and-out and sent their punt unit on the field, minus one player. With ten in the formation and an empty backfield, Memorial Stadium in Lincoln rose to their feet with tears and applause.
“We had to take the delay of game,” tweeted the Husker’s official Twitter account, “weren’t able to get all 11 guys out to punt in time. Missing one of them.” In a just as classy act, opponent Fresno State declined the penalty.
When asked post-game, then-Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter replied, "If we can’t teach our guys about doing something classy like that, then what is college for? I said, of course we’re going to decline the penalty.”
about the author
Samuel Chen is the principal director of The Liddell Group.
Chen has managed and directed numerous campaigns and has also served as a staffer in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2014, he was named to PoliticsPA's "30 under 30" list for top political operatives in Pennsylvania.
He has also spoken throughout the country in various venues, including academic conferences, policy testimonties, and media interviews and holds degrees in philosophy, political science, and church-state studies, all from Baylor University.
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"If we can’t teach our guys about doing something classy like that, then what is college for? I said, of course we’re going to decline the penalty.”
- Fresno State Coach Tim DeRuyter
DeRuyter’s comments don’t apply merely to college, but to life. Life that both Pat Summitt and Sam Foltz modeled for us by embracing it to the fullest. It is no coincidence that the legacy both leave will be found not in a stat line or trophy case, but in the lives both near and far that they touched.
Perhaps there is no better way to end 2016 than for the Tennessee Volunteers and the Nebraska Huskers to play each other.
May we each carry that torch in 2017—in politics, in society, in life.
Music City Bowl 2016: Two teams playing for someone other than themselves.