For one glorious moment, a warped perspective makes sense — sort of

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

I once dined with a British executive in a hotel where a college basketball team happened to be staying.

As a succession of extremely tall and fit young men walked by, he was spellbound. He'd never seen so many gigantic human beings in one location before. I had to explain that they were basketball players whose athletic prowess had landed them at the university they represented.

He was incredulous.

“They were accepted into college because they are good athletes?” he asked. I had to reply that, yes, it was true. We Americans can have a warped perspective when it comes sports, I sheepishly admitted.

He was curious about how this bias played out in other ways. So I told him that in addition to gaining acceptance into colleges that would have otherwise laughed at their transcripts, many tended to spend little if any time in the classroom once admitted. Not all, mind you. But far too many tended to be less interested in matriculating than in becoming professional athletes.

I added that in many places, public funds that might otherwise support things like long-term care, infrastructure improvements and education were instead diverted to sports-related pursuits. It had reached the point where the highest paid public employee in most states was usually a college football coach.

But it's not just colleges, I added. Many cities had built athletic stadiums costing hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to lure the billionaires who own professional sports franchises.

If you look at this sports-addicted dynamic from a purely logical standpoint, it defies logic. Pulling funds away from needed services in order to comfort the comfortable? In what universe would that move make sense?

I wish I had a good answer. The best explanation I can think of came along Wednesday night at 11:44 p.m. For that was when the Chicago Cubs ended a 108-year championship drought by winning Game 7 of the World Series.

Unless you happen to root for Chicago's National League affiliate, it's hard to imagine how exhilarating and cathartic that experience turned out to be for the millions of people who do.

Never mind that tens of thousands of fans gathered outside Wrigley Field to take in the moment, even though the actual contest was being played 300 miles away. Or that millions more trekked to downtown Chicago two days later to participate in the official celebration. Or that a river that runs through the center of town was dyed a shade of blue that matches the team's colors. Or that Facebook and other media outlets were suddenly flooded with stories about generations of loyal fans finally being rewarded.

(A note to fans of the Indians and the other, less celebrated Chicago team, the White Sox: I fully appreciate how frustrated and disappointed you must be right now. Been there, done that.)

For a brief moment, the usual nonsense had been put on hold. Complete strangers began chatting about the Series like old friends. Chicago (or at least the part north of Madison Street) was on a joyous bender. People lined up for hours at sporting goods stores to happily purchase $34 baseball caps and other overpriced apparel. A city that had been the scene for 17 murders the previous weekend seemed genuinely giddy.

It was as if the Cubs finally made their supporters temporarily forget about the frustrations, unfairness and meanness that life can bring. And that, my friends, is indicative of why sports is so often a misplaced priority. The residue of sports success is pure, unfiltered happiness. And that payoff can be as tempting and powerful as any drug.

Does the occasional sports-induced sugar high make it okay to shortchange seniors and other deserving causes? Hardly. But when more than a million people are suddenly out-of-their-minds happy, it's easy to see why everything else will be asked to take a number.

General Douglas MacArthur famously said there is no substitute for victory. How true. How very true.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.