SBJ/October 1 - 7, 2001/Opinion

Sept. 11 attacks give new purpose to sport

Unlike most days in the life of our small nonprofit organization, none of the staff of the Women's Sports Foundation were in lower Manhattan or in the air on Sept. 11.

Upon hearing of the tragedy at the World Trade Center 18 miles from our offices, our 45 employees and interns checked on the safety of family, colleagues and friends. We called foundation donors and sponsors whose businesses and homes were located in downtown Manhattan or who might have been flying. We received hundreds of appreciated calls and e-mails inquiring if we were safe. Fortunately, we, and our loved ones, were spared.

For the first 45 minutes during this disaster, we, like most people, were transfixed to the television screen in a state of shock and disbelief. I think it had something to do with the sports backgrounds of our employees that inaction was simply not an option. One hour after the first plane hit Tower One, the foundation's interns and employees were among the first people to give blood at our local medical center.

The remainder of the week challenged our senses and emotions. We gave each other permission to cry and talk and stay home and do whatever was necessary for our hearts, minds and souls to cope with the cowardly inhumanity of terrorists.

As athletes, we understood the meaning of coward — any player who would violate the rules of fair play and civility, someone who seeks unfair advantage.

As athletes, we understood the meaning of violence — acting with intent to maim and prevent an opponent from playing the game at all.

The week after brought new challenges. There was a fatigue and lethargy to be confronted. It was almost as if we didn't want to play any more. We didn't want to move away from the comfort and safety of home. The feeling reminded me of losing the captain of my team to injury and having to face the championship game without a familiar spirit, without knowing exactly how the team would react in every situation.

The biggest challenge was asking whether work really mattered in comparison to the snuffed-out lives of so many innocent people.

For nonprofit organizations like the Women's Sports Foundation, the answer may have been easier than for for-profit businesses. We exist to advance the lives of girls and women through sport rather than to make money from sport or business. We seek for women the same rights and respect that men enjoy. We give women the confidence to have a voice and the opportunity to hold leadership positions in sport, and we hope, elsewhere in their lives.

It was not hard to feel the relevance of our work and mission when confronted with the television images of Islamic women under Taliban rule who are not permitted to show, much less celebrate the abilities of, their bodies. It was difficult to comprehend that, under Taliban rule, women have no voice or right to trial. They face the punishment of instant and public death by the male they offend if they fail to be subservient and invisible.

For our organization, the relevance of seeking equality and fair treatment of women as a basic right in their lives or in cultural institutions like sport is both real and deliberate.

Those of us who work in the profit and nonprofit businesses of sport should be grateful that the events of Sept. 11 forced us to re-examine the relevance of what we do. Sport is not just about having fun and playing games. Professional sport is not just about making money as an entertainer. If it is, in comparison to the events of Sept. 11, we are irrelevant.

For some, this may be the case. But for most, the terror delivered to New York City and Washington will be a good wake-up call about how relevant sport can and should be. It's an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the gifts we are capable of giving to our children, ourselves and our fans through the medium of sport.

Sport has been one of the few activities of our culture where differences such as race and religion are ignored. One ultimately must be judged on the basis of ability and character, the way in which we play.

The playing fields of sport are where we teach our children to be confident, strong and loyal. We learn how each teammate's talents are valued regardless of race or ethnicity. During games, we are required to make distinctions between right and wrong as we are forced to make hundreds of choices to follow or not follow the letter and spirit of the rules. Professional athletes, those who have learned about these distinctions and have become godlike examples of skill and strength and beauty, make decisions every day about the kind of role models they choose to be, not whether they will be role models.

Two words become especially meaningful during times like these, whether we are in the business of sport or not: terror and violence. We all have the ability to terrorize — from the methodologies of compliance used by coaches to control or motivate athletes, to how fans demonize opposing teams as enemies in their home arenas, to the way supervisors treat their employees or the ways that we relate to each other every day. Respect is the antithesis of terrorism.

Violence is to act toward another with the intent to hurt. It's a choice made by a pitcher seeking retribution for the teammate hit by a pitch. It's the throwing of an elbow under the hoop. It's the decision to put a player out of the game by an injury we deliver. Violence isn't only about beanballs and chop blocks. It need not be about blood or airplanes or knives or bullets. We can hurt with words as well as we can hurt physically. Is it worse to kill or to make life miserable for another?

When you really think of it, each of us is able to give extraordinary gifts to others every day: joy, confidence, strength, inspiration, loyalty, health and respect. Or we can be the antitheses. Sometimes terrible events force us to re-examine the way we lead our lives and conduct our business.

For this opportunity, we are grateful. As many nations mobilize a crusade for human rights and civility, each of has the opportunity to channel our energy into positive action toward one another. Each of us has a contribution to make.

Donna Lopiano is executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation.

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