Don’t do it. Don’t cry. Pull your chin up. Look at me. Look me in the eye. You’ll get ‘em next time. Now get back out there. Next play.
If you’ve ever played sports, you’ve heard some iteration of those words. Maybe you struck out or you fumbled the ball. Maybe you shot an air ball. Maybe it was something as simple as tripping and falling. In that next moment when the embarrassment or anger set in, you caught your mother’s gaze, your coach’s eyes, and you saw the words on their face. There’s no crying in sports.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that’s a lie. The point isn’t to not cry; the point is to earn it.
I often get injured. I’ve torn two meniscuses, my MCL, ligaments and tendons in my wrists, ankles, feet, fingers; broken bones, bruised organs, and I stub my toes quite often. And I’ve cried. I’ve cried on basketball courts, football fields, baseball diamonds, locker rooms, grand stands, benches. A lot of those tears were shed from physical pain. Those are earned. If you sacrifice your body for a sport, you earn those tears when they come. But the tears I remember didn’t come from physical pain. They came from moments missed, from obstacles overcome. I cried for the love of the games, and for the love these games give us.
When I was about 12 years old I had a rec-league basketball game, loser out. My back had been acting up the week prior and I didn’t know if I would play. I did. It was a tough game. It may have even gone to overtime. There are flashes I remember, incomplete memories. We lost that game. Afterwards I sat on the bench; maybe one or two other players were still beside me. The tears started to flow. I couldn’t control it. The harder I tried the worse it got. My parents came to my side; my coach knelt before me and asked, “Are you crying because of your back? Or because of the game?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
I knew. I hobbled back to the car. The rec center employees looked at me with pity. They knew too.
It’s not exclusive for t-ballers or youth sports. I’ve cried at every level of sports. I’ve cried watching “SportsCenter.” (At this point it may seem like I cry a lot. I assure you that is not the case). You want to see a grown man cry, watch the NBA Finals. You want to see grown women huddled together, wetting each other’s uniforms with tears, watch the women’s World Cup. Whether they win or lose, they will cry. But it isn’t just the game that digs into your heart. It’s not simply winning or losing that tugs your emotions with a cinder block. It’s the people, the stories, the opportunities to collectively overcome.
Sports are the eternal eraser. Homeless. Cancer survivor. Orphan. Rich. Poor. Black. White. Immigrant. Citizen. None count between the lines. Victories live on. Losses remain. The strings that weave these stories together, poverty, the suburbs, abuse, privilege, from abroad or your hometown, those stories live on after the seasons, after the teams, after the players, after the leagues, after the game. Sports are also the mighty pen.
The next time you see a player shed a tear during the national anthem, understand why. The next time you see a tear streaming down a kneeling player’s face, know why. The next time you watch sports, watch it all. See the players. See the staff. See the crowd. See them for what they are. See the sport for what it is. It is an opportunity to collectively overcome. Sports have always been the greatest analogy for life. When they come back, what will you be watching?