So much has been swirling around and through the Kobe Bryant tragedy.
The sheer awfulness of it for families and friends of all nine victims.
The veritable religious shrines and assembled crowds and profound eulogies lamenting Bryant’s passing in particular.
The careful inclusion by more sensitive and attuned observers of the eight other victims, whose lives were also lost, in an equal, if not more awful sense, especially given that three of them were mere teenagers, their whole lives still ahead of them, snuffed before so much more experience of joy and discovery—and even sorrows—could inject themselves into the lives that they were still forming.
The deep communal grief so freely expressed by those who knew him (and those who didn’t, but in this era of mass, ubiquitous, unrelenting media, thought they surely did).
Teammates, opponents, executives, coaches, grown men all, weeping in this era of the sensitized male, even the manly athletic ones, lamenting their lost brother.
The inevitable pointing by some to past transgressions, a rape allegation among them, meant to temper the excesses of worship and lionization, but experienced as arrows aimed at grieving hearts.
The shaming and venom directed at those who dared to do so, at such an already painful time.
All of this amidst a national rage of impeachment, another viral epidemic not of the digital kind, fires sweeping continents, the first electoral choices of a momentous presidential campaign, and even closer up ahead…the national holiday known as the Super Bowl, perhaps the perfect salve of distraction and consolation after a weeklong giving to grief that far exceeded the normal attention span allotted to such things.
I’ve written previously about sports as religion, and that is certainly what most struck me with video footage of the Lakers’ home arena in the first game back there, five days after Bryant’s death in the helicopter crash he had arranged to take his daughter, her two teammates, three parents, the team’s coach, and the pilot to the girls’ game a week ago Sunday morning.
The photo above shows the shrine that fans constructed outside the arena in the days after his death, and it is a sight to behold.
Balloons, banners and signs, fresh flower bouquets by the hundreds, stuffed animals, jerseys, scrawled notes and cards, scores of basketballs and renditions of Bryant’s uniform number —24. And much more.
We want so badly to celebrate, to be moved, to have our hearts gladdened, inspired, called upon, shredded, turned toward something dramatic, world-shaking and good.
From the looks of the pile, probably thousands of people had carefully selected items they wanted to leave in honor of their hero, spending their time and money and then traveling to downtown Los Angeles to deposit their tribute. No one does this who is not passionately moved, at a soul level, to express his or her love, devotion and grief in a grand public setting. The beloved community of believers.
Undeniably, sports has risen in importance in the world more or less in concert with the continuing decline in organized religion, and though sports did not cause that decline, it is most certainly benefitting from it.
And, more importantly, often serving as a substitute for it.
Sunday tailgate parties undoubtedly give churches a good run for their attendance (not to mention money) in pro football towns, and when it comes to college and high school football, entire cities and states about close down for their Saturdays in the sun or under Friday Night Lights.
And college basketball’s March Madness—how many collective hours do you reckon people spend poring over season stats in sizing up their team’s chances on the way to a betting pool and then either the game or a loud party in front of a huge TV? More time, I am going to guess, than they do going through their Bibles or reading about the lives of the saints.
We want so badly to celebrate, to be moved, to have our hearts gladdened, inspired, called upon, shredded, turned toward something dramatic, world-shaking and good. Given the power of modern media—its imagery, immediacy, music, high production values and saturation coverage that bleeds into nearly every portion and moment of our lives—can old stories from bygone times, in almost unimaginable settings wholly devoid of the modern, serve to sustain our attention and change our ways?
Or is that accomplished with greater efficacy and emotion by your team making the Super Bowl, or your favorite player sinking the game winning shot, or spiraling to his death on a foggy hillside?
In the midst of it all, the impeachment trial and almost certain acquittal of our president. An article from yesterday’s “Washington Post” on the Republican senators’ trial deliberations included this foreboding passage:
“Democrats heavily pressured vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection this fall, driving a message declaring any trial without witnesses would be a ‘coverup.’ But GOP senators and aides were confident that voters were paying little attention based on a survey conducted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the official campaign arm of Senate Republicans.”
Voters paying “little attention.” I have no doubt this is true. Consider: A 2018 Johns Hopkins University study indicated that one out of three Americans could not name their state’s governor, and four out of five could not name their state legislator.
Perhaps even more troubling, a 2015 poll of millennials aged 18-34 indicated that 77% of them could not name either of their U.S. senators.
Would it be better if only those 23% who knew one of their senators actually voted? Or would the higher turnout that we do have (an estimated 55% in the 2016 elections) suggest something even more portentous for our democracy: that citizens by the millions are walking into the voting booth not even knowing the names of the senatorial candidates they will be deciding on?
These are difficult questions. What we do know for sure is that political strategists and ad creators depend on such ignorance and disengagement to make not only misleading and absurd claims, but also to utter blatant lies, repeatedly, shamelessly, without fear of consequence. (As of January 20, a certain president had made 16,241 documented “false or misleading” claims since taking office three years ago.)
The flip side of all this: Millions of sports fans’ exhaustive knowledge of games, players, standings, stats, schedules and sports history. Their nearly inexhaustible investments of time, money, and ardor. Some of that time, some—not much—of that money, and on occasions like yesterday’s Super Bowl with my former Bay Area team in it, some of that ardor, is mine. (Though even the ardor lasts only till the final whistle, when I stride back out into the night with nary a care to resume all the rest of life, wholly uninterested in listening to the somber tones of interviewers approaching the grief-wracked losing coach for a few words of consolation.)
I have played and observed sports all my life, and I follow along just enough to enjoy the proverbial water cooler or locker room banter that underlies so much surface-level conversation in daily life. My father was an athlete, and my brother and I followed, to our great pleasure and reward.
But something is clearly amiss when more than 62 million people vote for an all-too-obvious conman for president, most all of whom will do so again this year; when shrines and grief for a basketball player, however accomplished, exceed by quantum dimensions those for presidents and judges, scientists or generals; and, implausibly, it would seem, when none of three contestants on “Jeopardy” a couple of weeks ago (one of them an English professor), could identify the photo of a rather prominent member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Fellow by the name of Adam Schiff.
I fear for a country where these things are the current reality. Perhaps it has always been thus?
Perhaps it has. And perhaps it has always been a bad sign.
The death of Kobe Bryant and the eight others on his flight—his daughter Gianna Bryant; baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri Altobelli, and their basketball-playing daughter Alyssa Altobelli; mother and daughter Sarah Chester and Payton Chester; Mamba Academy basketball coach Christina Mauser; and pilot Ara Zobayan (it felt important to list their names)—is a tragedy of the first order.
Where, however, it now joins literally countless other such tragedies of lives cut short by accident, war, natural disaster, mortal illness, or the privations visited upon innocents by parents ill-equipped to provide for their own.
“Not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge,” says the Book of Matthew. That sense of equality in tragedy of all human beings, and, indeed, of “all of God’s creatures (and) their place in the choir,” to quote Celtic Thunder, feels more comforting to me than does the monumental outrush of grief and observance that accompanies the death of a sports figure, movie star, or other celebrity.
That celebrityhood, in a technological media age that simply didn’t exist until just a few blinks of human history ago, serves to distort or put a strange overlay atop deaths that make them into something more colossal and overwhelming than they are. Because what they are, in the final analysis, is the simple plummeting of more sparrows to the ground as all sparrows are wont to do, at the time and place fate has determined for them.
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Bryant in uniform by 陳 克弦 (Ellery Chen) https://www.flickr.com/photos/ellerychen/
Shrine photo by Getty images
Grief art by Leonorah Beverly, Germany, https://www.flickr.com/photos/leonorah_beverly/