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The Cost of Playing the Game

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

“We have to get our sports back. I’m tired of watching baseball

games that are 14 years old.” President Trump April 14, 2020

I spent my childhood in South Africa trying to survive the suicide of a parent and my family’s subsequent fall into poverty to pay much attention to sports. I was well-aware that cricket and rugby were as beloved to my countrymen as boerewors and biltong were, but I had more important things to do, like keeping a safe distance from my abusive stepfather, and watching out for my younger sister, Tania.

My family emigrated to the United States in 1986, and, a few years later I enrolled at the University of Nevada, Reno. I majored in psychology and when I wasn’t working as a checker in Albertsons or unloading trailers at UPS to pay my tuition, I studied. Tania, though, she wanted to immerse herself in our new culture from the foods she ate to the clothes she wore to the social scenes she flung herself into.

“You have to come to a football game with me,” she said throwing herself on my bed, where I lay reading a book. “It’s the most fun thing ever!”

I’d grown tired of saying no to her every whim, so on a hot September afternoon in 1994, I finally attended my first American sporting event. Between the hot Nevada sun beating down on my uncapped head and the ear-piercing screams from the thousands of Wolf Pack fans surrounding me, I could barely make sense of what was happening on the field below me. But through the haze I caught sight of the tallest player on the team. Number 75. There was something about the way he held his body that kept my attention glued to him.

Tania insisted I go with her to the post-game party, and it was there that #75 took hold of my hand and introduced himself. “Hey. I’m Deron,” the man with the blue twinkling eyes said as he stared down into my mine. “What’s your name?”

Deron and I later married, and he went on to play offensive tackle for the New York Jets and New York Giants. By then I’d become far-too-aware of how obsessed American fans are with their sports. Wherever we went, the fans followed. Deron loved playing football, but for him, it was above all, a paycheck. A way to make a living so he could save and provide for the family we dreamed of having together. After he stopped playing professionally, he continued to love the game, but, for him, it wasn’t the most important thing in his life. Our two daughters were. I was. He used to record “Monday Night Football” games and, only after he gave the girls their baths and tucked them in bed, would he slink off to the garage to watch them.

When he started working as a Channel Marketing Manager for Cisco Systems, he also coached high school football, but his coaching went beyond scrimmaging and yelling out plays. Deron knew that no team was more than the sum of its parts. Every kid mattered as an individual to him. If they needed extra practice, more of his time, he gave it. If he found out one of his boys was having personal issues, Deron was always there to lend an ear or shoulder.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert,

offered a path for live sports to return during the summer and

the fall, even as the country continues to grapple with the

coronavirus pandemic.

I think Deron would have been appalled by the notion of prioritizing sports. I could almost hear him saying, “Fauci man, I want to watch my Raiders play again, but stay real and focus on all those mothers and fathers who are unemployed right now. Should we really be focusing on sports when parents are struggling to pay their bills and put food on the table?”

As for the suggestion that athletes get tested every week, I know Deron would have laughed at the very notion because it wouldn’t just be the athletes who would need to get those valuable weekly tests that are in short supply. Coaches would need to as well as referees, trainers, security, camera personnel, broadcast engineers, nutrition and medical personnel, clock operators and other league staff.

Yes, I can imagine my husband sitting across from me at the kitchen table reading the paper and wondering, like so many of us are, why Trump and team owners are so hellbent on restoring spectator-less sports instead of doing everything they can to keep our fellow Americans from dying.

Sports is the very fiber of all we stand for. It keeps our spirits alive."

-Franklin Roosevelt.

I don’t disagree with the critics who say that sports are a great distraction during bad times and that it is the glue that once held a country together during war. Boxing, horse racing and baseball were major spectator sports during WWII that served as diversions for many people. But the war we are fighting today is not one that we are familiar with. COVID 19 is an invisible enemy. Our battlefield today is everywhere. The virus knows no lines or boundaries. It’s inside the comfort of homes, on playgrounds, at meat processing plants and every conceivable place one can imagine. Yes, we are sad and in need of distraction, but those distractions can be fatal. Death lurks every time we get near someone. More than distraction, we need to remain focused on one key word, priorities.

I wish Deron were here to help me make sense of the senselessness going on around us. I wish he were here hugging the three of us with his large arms, pulling us close to his huge strong body. Talking us out of our fears. Distracting us with his silly jokes. Throwing a football around the yard with the girls. But Deron died suddenly at the age of 33. The doctors said it was from “natural causes,” the two most unnatural words my ears have ever heard.

So, while the country groans under the weight of the dead, I still grieve for the loss of my love. Thirteen years after I found his lifeless body on the bathroom floor, I still hear his voice in my head. “Hey, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses. It’s only a game, right?”

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