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TW: Gun violence

In professional wrestling, there’s a principle known as kayfabe that governs the act playing out onstage. Kayfabe is a relatively simple distortion of reality that boils down to three essential points: 

One: Professional wrestling is fake. Two: Everyone watching knows that professional wrestling is fake. And three: Nonetheless, the audience enjoys it more if everyone pretends it’s real. So time and time again, that’s exactly what happens. People flock to stadiums to watch a version of reality that they know is inherently falsified, because it offers something to revel in. 

Professional team sports are drastically different from professional wrestling. But at the same time, all sports are laden with a different kind of distortion of reality — the erasure of societal divisions. Yet sometimes the cost of this distorted reality is too steep, and now is one of those times.

It’s easy to ignore the ugliness of politics — guns being prioritized over public safety, women’s and voting rights being destroyed, and Black people being killed by police officers — when sports gloss over these topics. 

Because for three hours a night, sporting events craft an alternative world where only one thing matters — what team you root for. This is part of the reason that sports are so enthralling. They suspend all distinction, and replace it with collective effervescence that can bind millions of people around the world together as long as they’re wearing the right colors. And within this version of reality, the outside world and all the disagreement and dissimilarity in it can be forgotten, because in the arena, the only thing that matters is who wins. 

And the University of Michigan is a school that knows this best. In The Big House, in Crisler and in Yost, thousands of fans are bound together by an intense feeling of connection. I think back to when the football team beat Ohio State and I rushed the field with thousands as the snow fell, feeling pure ecstasy. Looking back on that day feels almost like a dream. Nothing else mattered except enjoying that moment.

But that’s not reality, and everyone in attendance knew it. They knew that the outside world could not be forgotten and that other issues are inherently more pressing than the game. But they did it anyway — but I did it anyway — because they all realized that they’d have a better time if they pretended like their unity bound by team allegiance was absolute and genuine.

And sometimes, this beautiful distortion needs to be shattered. Sometimes, kayfabe must be dropped. 

This week, when a gunman walked into an elementary school with an AR-15 and murdered children — again — kayfabe had to be dropped.

The fallout started like it always does. There was the wave of  condolences, moments of silence, tweets, statements of disgust and even outrage — but nothing inflammatory. 

Then, it went a step further. 

It started with Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Golden State Warriors and a man who knows what it’s like to lose a loved one through gun violence. In a press conference prior to Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference finals he said

“Any basketball questions don’t matter. When are we going to do something? I am tired. I am so tired of getting up here and offering condolences to the devastated families out there. I’m tired of the moments of silence. Enough. … So I ask you, Mitch McConnell and all of you senators who refuse to do anything about the violence and the school shootings and the supermarket shootings — I ask you, are you going to put your own desire for power ahead of the lives of our children and our elderly and our church-goers? Because that’s what it looks like. That’s what we do every week. I’m fed up. I’ve had enough. We can’t get numb to this. We can’t sit here and just read about it and say let’s have a moment of silence.”

In doing so, Kerr broke an unwritten rule. 

He acknowledged that basketball isn’t more important than reality and he replaced the artificial unity of sports with politics, inviting the vitriol that follows. And once Kerr brought the conversation to the world of sports, others followed.

Prior to their game against the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat too took a political stance, urging everyone in attendance to call local representatives and push them to change gun laws. On Thursday night, the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays united to take a stand, putting aside their contest and prioritizing a more important message. Using their social media to broadcast statistics on gun violence instead of plugging scores and highlights. 

Some people were horrified by these politically charged stances. Because to some, the infusion of politics into an arena designed to be devoid of division is the ultimate sin. Among those disgusted was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who referred to the actions of the Heat as, “politicizing a horrific tragedy.” 

Senator Rubio, what on earth is a horrific tragedy if not inherently political?

Politicians make a core promise when running for office to keep the Americans they serve safe. And time and time again, they have failed. An elementary school in Sandy Hook, a country music festival in Las Vegas, a nightclub in Orlando, a church in Sutherland Springs, a high school in Parkland, a grocery store in Buffalo and now, another elementary school, this time in Uvalde. 

And yet nothing has fucking changed.

There’s been no reform — and there’s no reason to believe that this was the last time. Nothing has been done by those with the power to make change. And because of it, people continue to die. 

The public is disgusted — not just with the horror of mass murder — but with the refusal of politicians to do anything to stop it. And disgust isn’t something that can be forgotten, not even for just a few hours. 

This is what forces the realms of sports and politics to become intertwined. Disgust cannot be forgotten. You can’t walk into Crisler, or the Big House, or any other stadium for that matter and suddenly forget that children were murdered and our politicians haven’t — and likely won’t ever — do a damn thing to prevent it from happening again. And so at a certain point, not acknowledging the disgust that the public feels is just as political as speaking out. 

By saying nothing, you are saying that nothing is pressing enough to force protocol to be broken. That nothing really needs to be done. It’d be the same as the band continuing to play as the Titanic sinks — a charade of normality.

But things are far from normal in our country. It’s not normal that our nation has seen more mass shootings than days this year. It is not normal that an 18-year-old can buy thousands of rounds of ammunition and multiple assault rifles. And it is absolutely not normal that our politicians refuse to take action because of an ambiguously written phrase in a 240-year-old document and a $250 million lobby.

Our politicians are failing us. It’s apparent to everyone in our nation, and because of that, politics needs to bleed into sporting events. Because sports cannot serve as a suspension of reality when reality needs to change — and right now, it desperately does. 

And as college athletes — many of whom are still teenagers — take advantage of their platforms and speak out, others should follow suit. 

In the past, many of the members of the Wolverine men’s and women’s basketball teams took to the court wearing warm up shirts that read messages like “say their names”, “stand together” and “unity.” Michigan athletes’ decision to speak up is important. 

Because athletes, coaches and teams have an incredible platform, by making political statements they have the power to make change. Sports attract eyes, garner media attention and become topics of conversation. They dominate our landscape, something every Michigan student knows, so when politics appear in sports, there’s nowhere for us to avert our eyes. 

That’s a good thing.

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics, it was because reality needed — and still needs — to change in America. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, it was because reality needed — and still needs — to change in America. And when the NBA canceled games after the death of Jacob Blake, it was because reality needed — and still needs —  to change in America. 

This time it’s no different. 

Generally, sports like to stay apolitical and erase division. But sometimes, the reality of the failures of our nation must be acknowledged in the pastimes we use to distort it. 

If black men aren’t safe from the police when they get pulled over and if children aren’t safe from gunmen in school, it is ridiculous and childish to ask that sports be devoid of the vitriol that comes with politics. 

By speaking out, Steve Kerr, the Rays, the Yankees and the Heat aren’t just being political, they’re being pragmatic. And every other person and entity in the realm of sports has a duty to follow suit, Michigan included. The athletic department can’t sit idly by, it needs to be outspoken. Coaches need to speak out, activism must be encouraged and individuals must make their opinions known.

Because sometimes kayfabe must be broken. And I happen to think that following the preventable murder of children — that our leaders are too cowardly to prevent with necessary stricter gun laws — it is a damn good time for that to happen.