Vigil for Orlando shooting victims on the steps of City Hall in Los Angeles
Vigil for Orlando shooting victims on the steps of City Hall in Los Angeles Credit: Eric Garcetti

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Back when I started attending football games as an employee rather than as paying customer, one of the first things I noticed was how many damned people it takes to put on a football game: the stadium workers, from ticket takers to concessionaires to the people that vacuum out the seats once everyone’s gone; the team’s support staffs, from medical to equipment to PR; the media horde; the executives and sales flacks and marketing folks; security and physical plant; and on and on and on.

I remember standing in MetLife Stadium one night, back when it was just “the new Meadowlands” looking at all of these people buzzing around for a preseason game, and thinking, “Man, just imagine if we put all these person-hours and all this well-meaning exertion toward something that actually mattered.”

Instead, it all went toward a preseason football game, which is to say an even more meaningless iteration of an already frivolous endeavor. Washington won the game on a fourth-quarter screen pass from Richard Bartel to Larry Johnson, an outcome that it’s possible that no one on earth, save the participants, actually remembers.

I thought about this again, unexpectedly, when I learned the sickening news out of Orlando.

One of the tropes of online reactions following a mass shooting is the ritual offering of thoughts and prayers. Anyone who feels an obligation to weigh in but who can’t really offer an opinion offers “thoughts and prayers” and gets to feel like they did something.

Pro-gun politicians are the most notable offenders, but sports personalities (and teams) join in as well. The Washington Post did a tweet-aggregation post of sports world reactions to the shootings, and it was a litany of thoughts and prayers and deepest sympathies.

No local teams appeared in the article, but it’s worth mentioning that the Capitals tweeted and retweeted extensively about the tragedy, possibly as an extension of their existing support for D.C. Pride. The Wizards retweeted the Orlando Magic, who were encouraging blood donations. The Nationals used their annual “Nats Night Out” Pride celebration a few days later as an occasion to memorialize. On the football side, QB Kirk Cousins did tweet out that he was “praying for those affected”.

Thoughts and prayers are not an inherently bad thing—it’s good that some teams, players, and sports personalities are engaged with the world around them, that they don’t shy away from the issue because of any perceived volatility. But I wonder whether it’s enough.

It’s unfair to compare any of these people—these aggregated tweets—to Muhammad Ali. But the comparison feels inevitable anyway. When Ali died, one of the most common refrains about his life was that his principled stands would not have been well-received—or maybe even possible—in the modern world of corporate sponsorships and advertising. 

I’m not sure that that’s true. I’m just young enough that I don’t really remember Ali as a boxer. I only know him as a legend, from the documentaries and articles and old footage. But what comes through in all of those retellings is that Ali was a man who understood his power, both in the ring and out of it. The ability to speak out as he did, to bypass so many elements of mainstream America and to openly point to commonplace injustices, was no more common in those days than it is now. But Ali realized that he could do it, and he realized what it would mean if he did it, and so he did.

Which is why I was thinking about that night in the Meadowlands again. Teams have power to sway public opinion, and even more power when you look at the huge human machine that turns simple games into epic spectacle.

When I originally thought about redirecting those energies, it was in a vague, nebulous way: “Hey, what if all these people were, like, researching a cure for cancer, mannnnnnn.” But watching the “thoughts and prayers” tweets get cranked out, it seemed much more concrete.

Politicians offer thoughts and prayers because politicians rarely say anything significant. The average person offers thoughts and prayers because that, and maybe a pint of blood, is all they have to spare. But sports teams aren’t—or shouldn’t be—bound by those restrictions. 

What the Capitals did was great, and Orlando’s local teams established themselves as a rallying point for the city. Both clubs made genuine calls to action. The Nationals’ tribute was moving.

Still, I found myself wishing that more teams (and their players) would do more—that this would be the rule and not the exception. That they would understand their potential power, and turn it toward something that actually mattered, maybe even without waiting for tragedies to happen. CP

Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl. Photo via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0 license.