An unfamiliar mixed emotion overtook my nine year old son, Gabriel, and me as we watched the New York Giants close out the San Francisco 49ers.
For almost four hours, we’d been sitting in a San Francisco home—lone Giants fans happily slapping palms and shouting encouragement surrounded by three generations of equally fervent Niner supporters. And then, after a moment of unalloyed glee, as Giant’s holder Steve Weatherford recovered a bad snap and Lawrence Tyner nailed the winning field goal, Gabe and I fell silent.
We were, it turned out, both thinking of Kyle Williams, the Niners kick return guy who had lost the ball that opened the door to the Giants’ winning field goal, after he had earlier, inadvertently kicked away a punt. The TV camera had found him on the bench pushing his mouthpiece around with his tongue. How, Gabe and I wondered, was he going to make it through the night carrying all the burdens of his unfulfilled responsibility, and through all the nights ahead?
Perhaps it’s because Gabe earnestly loves to play ball, and I feel so intimately the pain that comes with his inevitable share of mistakes; perhaps it’s because I am a psychiatrist and older and more aware of my own blunders and their consequences, that I find myself ever more interested in the quality of the play and the feelings of the players- and less preoccupied with the identity of the winner.
I think, too, that journalists—especially the old fashioned ones who write for papers- have helped to sensitize me. Over the last few years, I’ve become aware of how much and how subtly they attend to the psychology of their subjects—players, coaches, managers, and even owners. Anticipating meeting real people- as well as the drama of the game and its results- now brings me to the sports pages with a pleasure I haven’t had since I was Gabe’s age, devouring box scores and aping batting stances.
I also cannot help but contrast this attention to what “hard news” counterparts usually offer in our papers’ front sections. I feel I know and have more fellow-feeling for the emotions and egos, the idealism, attentiveness, self-deception, and fatuousness, of Shaq, Kobe, and Dirk, of Pac Man and Kim Clijsters and Martina, than I do for Barack, Hillary, and Mitt, Bibi Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamid Karzai.
The omission of this psychological, this human attention, handicaps my understanding of political players and the weighty moves they make. It also tends, I believe to make us readers less sensitive to the negative consequences- collateral damage it is sometimes called- of their actions. The presence of this sensibility in the sports pages, on the other hand, helps me to feel far more connected to the men and women who populate our playing fields and courts.
So I’m glad that the sportswriters and I can feel for and with Kyle Williams, even as I root against him, and with Billy Cundiff, who missed the Ravens’ game-tying kick, and everyone else who can’t step up or who falls down. And because I can, feel for them I can tell my son that I hope Kyle Williams will be able to accept responsibility without being devastated by self-blame; that he will, as I hope Gabe and his friends would, talk with his teammates and family and friends. And as I do so, I know that I’m at least as grateful for the opportunity to learn and share this lesson in compassion as I am for the Giants hard earned win.
James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression and the Founder and Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC.