Barber: Sports in the time of disaster

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This was supposed to be a college football column. I was supposed to write from the Cal-Stanford game in Berkeley. You know what happened. Cal postponed the game for two weeks, citing the air quality index with which we have all become far too familiar.

It was the right decision, of course. You can’t expect poorly compensated college labor to run sprints in a science-fiction haze, nor expect fans to fire up barbecue grills when the air around them is already full of smoke. But the postponement feels like a loss.

Now, during the latest in a never-ending string of natural disasters, is when we need our games the most.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to sell you on sports as The Thing That Will Save America. I’ve covered athletes and their endeavors for a long time, and I know that sports frequently bring out the best in all of us. The games demand discipline and sacrifice. Coaches can be heroes, especially at the lower levels, and teammates wind up embraced as brothers and sisters.

I also understand that sports has a darker side. The quest to dominate opponents, or to gain our adulation, encourages all manner of bad behavior — cheating, bullying, cruelty, entitlement and violence where it has no place.

We need sports in times of crisis, but not because the games are pure or exalted or superior. We need sports now because they are ordinary.

I think back to the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. We were two games into the Bay Bridge World Series when the ground shook, and a lot of people at the time advocated for canceling the rest of the A’s-Giants games. Bodies still lay buried under the Cypress Street Viaduct, they noted. Whole neighborhoods in San Francisco were rubble. How could we concern ourselves with something as trivial as baseball when we were surrounded by misery?

They were missing the point. We needed the World Series precisely because it was trivial.

The ’89 earthquake aftermath played out like most other disasters, as far as I could tell. As soon as folks were out of harm’s way, and as soon as loved ones were accounted for, everyone began to stir. They swept up. They went shopping. They fed their dogs. They drank beers and smoked cigarettes and shot the breeze. And after a 10-day delay that felt like months, they watched the A’s crush the Giants. Life went on.

Eleven months ago, I covered a few high school sports teams that were trying to function in the wake of the North Bay wildfires. The first to return to action was the Cardinal Newman boys’ water polo team, which had been scheduled to play in a tournament in Sacramento — where the air was breathable — less than six days after the fires erupted.

It had been a harrowing week for the water polo players and their families. Several had been evacuated from their homes in Santa Rosa. Two families had lost their houses to the flames. But when the Cardinal Newman administration gave its blessing and the coach put it to a ballot, 19 of 21 varsity and JV players voted to play in the tournament.

I remember the water polo mom whose home was wiped out telling me, “What grounds kids are their home and their school, and that’s their community. I mean, Bennett, by day two or three, he’s like, ‘I never thought I would say this, but I want to go back to school.’ ”

Her son wanted his routine back. All the players did. They wanted a shared experience after a week that was far too solitary. They wanted normalcy. I’m guessing their parents, so filled with worry for the family’s well-being, craved it even more.

And what better place to find normalcy than in the swimming pool, or on the football field, or the soccer field, or in the volleyball gym?

This, to me, is the true allure of sports. It isn’t that the games create better women or men, or that they reveal so much about human nature. It’s not even the beauty of athletic talent or the excitement of a close finish, or not just that. It’s the comfort we find in repetition and ritual, in sharing an event with our children that feels so much like events we shared with our parents. Sports are a common thread.

And we could really use them right now. I know the Camp fire isn’t “our” calamity here in the North Bay. It belongs to the people of Paradise and the hills around that pretty little town. But the constant smoke is bringing back some terrible memories for all of us, and it connects us, literally, to the more recently afflicted.

Anyway, it’s foul. If you’re like me, you’re feeling cooped up in your house, your car and your gym, longing to see a real blue sky.

There was a massive slate of college football games Saturday, and a lesser menu of NFL games Sunday, including the Raiders. The Warriors played on Saturday, and again on Sunday. It’s not like the sports world has gone dark.

But we are missing some events, too, and not just that delayed Big Game. Cal and Stanford canceled men’s basketball games, and Stanford a women’s game.

The University of San Francisco moved a couple of contests. The UC Davis-Sacramento State football game was relocated from Sac to Reno.

And the high schools are bearing the brunt. As detailed in these pages, the North Coast Section, deep into the playoffs in all of its fall sports, has postponed numerous games and races, and is currently weighing options that include moving events far away and simply wiping out playoff tournaments. You think you’re sick of obsessing over the air quality index? Talk to NCS officials.

I mostly feel bad for the kids who have worked so hard all season, now wondering if they will get a chance to play for a championship. But I feel bad for the rest of us, too. These are strange times. It feels like our natural world may never be the same. We’re all just looking for a little ordinariness right now. Unfortunately, for those of us who derive it partly from sports, normalcy has been postponed. Not canceled, let’s hope.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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