Charlottesville aided by thoughtful sports community


We are, as a society, too invested in sports. Otherwise even-keeled men and women lose the ability to control emotions or think rationally when it comes to their favorite teams. We know this. We just can’t help it.

There’s positive and negatives to this quirk of human nature. We do crazy things and overreact. My parents still have a picture hanging to cover a hole in the wall that may or may not have been punched in the 1990s after a particularly painful NCAA Tournament game. I won’t confirm nor deny.

The flip side is sports figures occasionally have the opportunity to be the heroes we always make them out to be. And often all it takes is a positive message. That’s particularly true in college towns such as Charlottesville, Va., where the local universities are such a huge part of the local culture, economy and overall day-to-day life.

Wilt Chamberlain helped integrate Lawrence, Kansas. Dean Smith later did the same in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and brought the first black players into the ACC.

As Charlottesville begins to recover from the riots and attacks from White Supremacist groups that rocked the normally quiet and peaceful Blue Ridge Mountain town, it’s lucky to have so many members of its sports community who really get it.

Unsurprisingly, in the immediate aftermath of the tragic events, people looked to University of Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall and basketball coach Tony Bennett, two of the community’s most prominent leaders, for their thoughts. They, of course, both said the right things.

Mendenhall spoke of his players “embracing diversity and being together, and respecting one another for differences, not separating because of differences.”

Bennett, after first expressing condolences for those that lost their lives last Saturday, expressed his thoughts on the Charlottesville community in general.

“I’m deeply troubled and saddened by what took place in Charlottesville,” Bennett said in a video released by the school. “But I love this community, this town and the University of Virginia and what it stands for.”

These are the kinds of words you’d expect from men in Mendenhall and Bennett’s positions, which doesn’t lessen them. But perhaps even more impressive and important has been the response from Virginia’s athletes, both current and former.

Among them was NBA Rookie of the Year, Malcolm Brogdon. For anyone who knows much about Brogdon, his ability to articulate a meaningful response is far from shocking. Brogdon was busy earning a masters degree in public policy while also becoming the first player in ACC history to win the league’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season.

His Milwaukee Bucks teammates call Brogdon the President, and it’s barely even a joke. Nobody would be surprised to see him in the White House someday and this week he’s spoken more coherently and meaningfully than the current occupant.

“I think at the end of the day, you have to call it what it is. I think it’s white supremacy and I think it’s domestic terrorism,” Brogdon told Sports Illustrated. “I think we live in a country where we go overseas and we fight other people’s wars. We fight terrorism overseas internationally, but we don’t want to fully acknowledge the terrorism that goes home domestically. I think it’s a shocking event, but it’s not surprising, the hate that’s still around.”

Perhaps Brogdon could choose Chris Long as a running mate. Long, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman, grew up in Charlottesville where he was a star player at St. Anne’s-Belfield high school and UVa.

This week, Long not only spoke out against the hatred of those who came to his home town to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, he also made a splash by supporting teammate Malcolm Jenkins. While Jenkins silently raised a fist in protest during the national anthem at an Eagles preseason game, Long stood with him, one hand over his heart and the other on Jenkins back.

On some levels it might seem ridiculous we have to look to athletes and coaches to lead the way to meaningful change. But we’ve seen it for decades, and at a time when politicians of all stripes are failing, it’s comforting to know there are leaders and role models in position to influence children and adults alike.

After recent events, don’t expect athletes personally affected by Charlottesville to simply stick to sports.

“I think it’s extremely offensive,” Brogdon said of the idea athletes shouldn’t speak out. “I think it puts us in a bubble. I think it simply implies that because were athletes we don’t have a say, we don’t have an opinion, or we don’t have the educational background to comment on things outside of sports. I just think it’s absurd. I encourage all athletes to speak out if they’re comfortable to do it. I think it’s our duty, i don’t think it’s something we really have a choice to do. If you have a platform, you should speak out.

“It’s the morally right thing to do.”