Tragedies won't stop if we hide from issue

NBC's Bob Costas took to the air two weeks ago to speak out against guns during the Sunday Night Football halftime show.

If you’ve come to the sports section seeking safe haven from the unimaginable atrocity that struck in Newtown, Conn., on Friday, you won’t find it here.

There is no safe haven from it.

The horror of what took place in the classrooms and hallways of Sandy Hook Elementary School haunts us all. As the reality of what took place and the worst fears of what happened to those poor children and their teachers sunk in, it was paralyzing. Immediately my mind went straight into my own daughter’s second-grade classroom. It was reflex parental reaction impossible to shut down – as were the sobs that came with it.

Some called it “unspeakable,” and in a way it is. Every time I try to speak about it with my wife or friends, the tears start welling anew. The President of the United States couldn’t speak about it without getting uncharacteristically emotional.

But we must speak of it. We have to no matter how much it hurts. We owe it to the families suffering in Newtown. We owe it to those precious little innocents who were slaughtered by evil and our own inaction.

The lines we failed to draw at Columbine or Blacksburg or Aurora or countless other senseless mass killings must be drawn now. We’ve become numbed by the regularity of the violence, as if it was just another natural disaster that we eventually dismiss for its unavoidable randomness.

And heaven forbid you talk about it. The gun lobby is conditioned to mobilize at the first report of another tragedy and work to shut off any constructive dialogue before it starts.

“Now’s not the time” and “too soon” are thrown around on cable news shows and social media as though there is some kind of acceptable timetable for when it’s appropriate to get angry about these atrocities and demand solutions.

“We aren’t shocked anymore when children are killed,” wrote notable liberal blogger Heather Parton. “It’s become a normal part of American life. The taboo has shifted from horror at the shootings to horror at talking about shooting. This is called ‘politicizing tragedy’ as if these mass murders are an act of nature rather than an act of human evil or madness (or both) enabled by easy access to the tools of mass murder.”

This automatic shutdown mechanism was on display just two weeks ago when respected sports commentator Bob Costas was criticized for bringing up the subject during his halftime segment on Sunday Night Football. After most of the NFL media had gone the whole day trying to move on with business as usual in the wake of the murder-suicide by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, Costas got reamed for shedding a controversial light upon gun violence.

“In the aftermath of the nearly unfathomable events in Kansas City, that most mindless of sports clichés was heard yet again – something like this really puts it all in perspective,” Costas said. “Well if so, that sort of perspective has a very short shelf life since we will inevitably hear about the perspective we have supposedly again regained the next time ugly reality intrudes upon our games. Please, those who need tragedies to continually recalibrate their sense of proportion about sports would seem to have little hope of ever truly achieving perspective.”

The critics screaming that there is no place in sports for this debate miss the point. The place for this debate is everywhere and everyone has a right to have their voice heard.

It was sports – the most common place for focused mass gatherings outside of church and theaters – where the wounded psyche of Americans was most on display again after Friday’s tragedy. There were moments of silence before every NBA game. Social media was rife with athletes expressing all manner of sympathy along the theme of LeBron James’ “I’m sick.” Oklahoma Thunder star Kevin Durant scribbled “Newtown, CT” on top of his sneakers. The entire Georgia Southern football team wore decals on the back of their helmets with the initials “SH” honoring Sandy Hook.

And ESPN radio host Scott Van Pelt stuck his neck out in Costas fashion.

“I beg of you, don’t make this the day you’re going to defend your turf about your opinion,” Van Pelt said.

He added, “Children don’t die in an elementary school if a 20-year-old who’s predisposed to do something awful like this doesn’t have an assault rifle in his hand. I don’t think that’s my opinion. I’m pretty sure that’s a fact.”

Point is, we have to discuss this in sports sections, news sections, water coolers, dinner tables, hospitals and legislative houses. Simply gathering around the families of the victims with our condolences, prayers and aid isn’t enough.

The answers aren’t simple and I don’t know what they are. But we need to have conversations about school safety protocols, mental health treatment and support and reasonable restrictions on guns meant to inflict carnage. We need to defend our innocent children and not our turf.

Because the horror that was inflicted upon those poor kids, teachers and their families should not be the price of freedom. We should all be haunted by this until we embrace solutions instead of bracing ourselves for the next unspeakable act of evil that’s sure to come.

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