Thursday, September 20, 2007

PROVOCATIONS: The Media's Obsession with Exploiting Mass Murder

"The importance that our society attaches to sport is incredible. After all, is football a game or a religion? The people of this country have allowed sports to get completely out of hand." - Howard Cosell.

Earlier this month Americans were told by the media before, during and after Virginia Tech's 17-7 defeat of East Carolina University that it was an emotional day. Over and over. It was the latest disgraceful exploitation of a mass murder.

This was a football game. A mere football game should never be what we turn to when there are 32 victims of a murdering sociopath.

A touchdown, an interception, a long field goal - a win- are superficial substitutions for bereavement. For thousands to ask, and in some cases demand, that athletes perform to assuage suffering is unseemly and morose. Especially when it's recent high school graduates.

"Va. Tech Begins Healing With Win Over ECU," read the headline on the Sports Illustrated website. Begins Healing? If they lost, would the healing have begun?

"Virginia Tech charged onto the field with an enormous burden. Barely adults, these guys were playing for themselves, playing for their school, playing for all those maroon-clad fans," reported the Associated Press.

The Washington Post reported "the Hokies appeared overwhelmed by emotion" (which meant they were weeping) and that "afterward several players admitted relief that the game, the first played since the April 16 campus shootings in which 32 people and the gunman were killed, was finally behind them."

This must stop. Now. No football game - no game of any kind - is a substitute for mourning. The Virginia Tech players were forced to play the game they love amidst an onslaught from The Feelings Industry - reporters and commentators constantly asking them to reflect and emote.

What was the goal of the journalists who flocked to Blacksburg? It was to find as many people as possible, especially players, who would break down recalling April 16. That makes for headlines and sound bites.

Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver and Coach Frank Beamer should have halted this gathering media manipulation and protected their players. They didn't, with Weaver continuing to implore fans not to boo East Carolina. So mass murder became the lynchpin, the motivation for a superficial public relations campaign to prevent booing at a stadium filled with 66,000 people.

Any one who suffers from the inexplicable loss of a loved one or friend, and searches for solace in an athletic event should know what happens. The game ends. And there is still that same emptiness and longing.

The first major American sports event after September 11, 2001 was played at Shea Stadium in New York between the Mets and Atlanta Braves on September 21. It was a dramatic win for the Mets, with catcher Mike Piazza hitting a home run every Met fan will remember, forever.

But September 22 dawned. There was still Ground Zero and only a 3-hour game that can never provide an explanation for why terrorists killed 3,000 people.

Similarly, the New York Yankees and New Orleans Saints had nothing to do with September 11th and Hurricane Katrina. Yet their players became responsible for repairing grief and pain, which the Virginia Tech players know too well.

Did Americans need to hear the reaction of college athletes only a few years removed from Pop Warner Football to a ghastly killing spree? Is it that important?

"This puts it all in perspective" is the standard cliche from the media in response to an unspeakable tragedy. No, it doesn't. Virginia Tech understands "perspective" as well as any institution. Their leaders should curtly tell the media to go away, leave their football players alone and allow the familes and friends of the fallen to mourn without cameras or a reporter's notebook constantly in plain sight.

You know what Virginia Tech fans? Boo your hearts out when your opponents take the field. And feel good doing it. You'll be closer to a sense of normalcy, and that's the way it should be.