Fabrice Muamba’s collapse last week has deeply affected me. It’s affected me as a sports fan, me as a journalism major, and me as a person. So naturally, I’m going to do the only thing I really know, and that’s write about it.
Why do we watch sports, anyways? For some of us, they’re a career. There’s athletes, physios, broadcasters, coaches, statisticians, journalists, groundskeepers, agents. You name it, it exists as a sports job. Forget those exist. Why do WE watch sports? It’s an escape of course. It’s a chance for everyone to forget how bad of a day they had at work, forget how their significant other is being completely illogical and can’t see things your way, and most of all, cheer for some idea, some entity we call a team.
I’m not here to talk about all that, except for the last part. The concept of a team is an interesting one. Players, front office staff, owners, medics, all the parts that make up a team come and go with the years, but the unidentifiable entity we call a “team” remains. The thing I find most intriguing about a team is why we all feel so strongly about them.
Take me for example. How the hell did I end up rooting for Fulham? Well, part of the reason is because of a man Clint Dempsey. He’s American. I’m American. Even though he’s across the Atlantic Ocean, is way better shape than me, way more famous than me, and makes gobs more money than I do, for whatever idiotic reason, I think he and I are somehow alike.
That, my friends, is the key concept I’m after here today. Identification is the basis of all sports. Whether you’ve played sports your whole life or you tried soccer once when you were three and kept getting pushed over until you quit, you think you know what it’s like for those players and coaches you would practically give your life for. Why else do we yell obscenities at a television? “Make a substitution you #&$*!!!!” We identify with our team, feel what they’re going through, agree or disagree with key moments in a match or a season.
Anyways, all that blabbering got me to this: When I saw Fabrice Muamba on the pitch, the identification sector of my brain had a field day. First, I saw the other players on the pitch. I’ve never been face to face with someone who’s dying (nor do I hope to in my days), but for whatever reason my mass of nerve endings in my head immediately thought it knew exactly why Rafael van der Vaart was crying, exactly why Owen Coyle ran onto the pitch, exactly why some people were praying. I felt everything. Then, without quite frankly knowing anything about Fabrice Muamba, I identified with his family, I identified with his friends, I identified with him.
After you’re done with the nonsense I’ve put on this blog page, you should read this article on Grantland by Brian Phillips. It’s quite possibly the best article I have ever read, and I’ve read a lot of articles in my days of journalism. He recaps exactly what everyone was feeling during that moment, particularly how, during the moments of news silence we experienced a half hour after he collapsed, we all started to be bombarded with his life story. Frantic journalists with no news on his status told stories of how he came from war-torn Congo, of how he got engaged, of how he has a young kid, of how he genuinely feels adopted by England and plays for the U-21 national team. Phillips says the following:
Muamba was one of those guys — you know, the ones whose teammates like and respect them, whose coaches never have anything but praise for their effort. In the day-to-day clockwork of sports, those guys can drive you crazy; here comes another commentator with another retrograde cliché about character, Vern. But this wasn’t day-to-day clockwork. This was one specific case of a kid maybe dying for no reason, a kid who actually had an admirable character, in a way that just cut straight through all the accumulated cobwebs of irony that protect you from the mediation of sports.
Bingo. We all identified with Muamba because, even though you may not have grown up in war-torn Congo, or heard gunfire at night, or had to pick up and move your family to another country just to survive, or flat out collapsed on a pitch with no one around you and possibly die……..we’ve all faced some form of adversity. And that mass of nerve endings in your head causes you to immediately identify with adversity. It’s the easiest thing to identify with. That bully you had to put up with in 4th grade who took your lunch money every day makes you think you know what he’s going through. And in some weird, twisted sense, you do.
I mean, how do you NOT identify with that!? Look at that smile!!
And instantly, you start singing Muamba’s name. Or, if you heard the crowd singing his name, you start to feel like you should be singing his name. You pull every inch of moral fiber in your brain to find whatever little bit of karma you may have sitting around in the fuel tank and try to telepathically send it his way. At least, I know I did. It’s natural. You can’t help it.
Well folks, whatever karma we conjured up did the trick. No, nobody here saved Fabrice Muamba’s life. In fact, I don’t even think the doctors did (please don’t get me wrong, those guys are absolute heros for what they did. It’s the kind of job only certain people can do without absolutely breaking down and losing all sense of reality). No, it’s a flat out miracle. The kid was clinically dead for SEVENTY-EIGHT MINUTES. For over an hour, his heart was dead silent, his brain and vital organs weren’t receiving any blood, and doctors did whatever they could to get his gears working again.
And in the end, he lived. He woke up. He can recognize people. He’s talking and joking with doctors. It’s an absolute, 100% miracle. There’s no other way to describe it.
And that, folks, is why this hit me so hard. I’ve identified with just about as many people in this situation as I possibly could. I’m identified-out. But something sticks when you identify with someone. Why do we root so hard for an invisible entity called a team? Why, when you see someone wearing the shirt of your team, a complete stranger, do you get a warm fuzzy feeling inside like you just saw a friend you haven’t seen in 10 years, and for no reason at all you walk up to said complete stranger and pump your fist and say “go [team x]!” Because something sticks. In the case of rooting for a team, it’s a lasting compassion. And I think it’s the same here. Everyone’s rooting for Muamba now. We all identified with him, the entiretly of the sports-loving community.
That’s why this hit me so hard. That’s why I get emotional when I read that article by Brian Phillips. That’s why I love sports. Because it brings people, complete strangers, together in the best, and in the worst of times. Even when there are lives of other complete strangers on the line.