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Column: Time for sports to help us heal again

Saturday - 4/20/2013, 10:28pm  ET

A Boston Bruins jersey with the number of Boston's area code and the words "Boston Strong" hangs in the locker of Bruins player Jay Pandolfo at TD Garden in Boston, Wednesday, April 17, 2013, after an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres in the aftermath of Monday's Boston Marathon bombings. (AP Photo/Jimmy Golen)

PAUL NEWBERRY
AP National Writer

In so many ways, sports can bring out the worst in us.

The corruption. The greed. The destructive belief that winning isn't just the only thing, but something that must be achieved no matter the cost.

Then, there are times like these.

While Boston was locked down Friday, as authorities hunted for a suspect in the deadly bombing at what was supposed to be a joyous 26.2-mile run through the city's streets, we've already seen the cathartic effect of something so mundane as a hockey game.

Thousands of strangers, singing along in unison to the national anthem, when the Bruins took the ice only two nights after those cowards killed three innocent people at the Boston Marathon -- one of them an 8-year-old child -- and ripped off the legs of others.

Did anyone who saw that rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" not, at the very least, dab at their eyes for a moment, a sense of pride and defiance bubbling up in their chest?

Sports gives us our sense of community in times of grief. It's like our collective couch, helping to soothe our national pain.

"What people look for in sports in a moment of crisis is a sense of security," said John Smith, who teaches classes on the history of sports and its impact on society at Georgia Tech. "You're going to games with people who are going through the same thing you are. There's kind of a safety there. It feels good to have a sense of normalcy."

We've seen it many times before.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, baseball carried on with President Roosevelt's blessing and helped deflect a nation's attention from the horrors of World War II. After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the games we play sent a resolute message that a nation would not give in to anyone's despicable agenda.

And now, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, we'll again call on sports to help bring out the best in us.

Rest assured, it's up to the task.

"Sports really are the most visible place where people can come together outside of churches," Smith said. "And, let's face it, arenas are bigger than most churches. I can think of no other place where so many people come out to show their support for people who are grieving, who have lost something, who are going through tragedy. The stadium is a place of congregation."

Boston's grieving is still in the early stages. That was quite apparent Friday when much of the city was brought to a halt by the successful search for one person.

The Red Sox were forced to postpone the opener of their series the Kansas City Royals because the city's transportation system was shut down and people were urged to stay home, all in hopes of flushing out the 19-year-old suspect who was captured hiding in a blood-spattered boat parked in a backyard.

The Bruins, after playing Wednesday, postponed their contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and later rescheduled it for early Saturday afternoon. The Red Sox and Royals will start play a few minutes later.

A city, a nation, a world will be the better for it.

"We're all looking forward to the next home game at Fenway Park," Smith said.

While we're at it, here's hoping the impact of this terrible week will be more lasting than past tragedies. Sports fans -- short for fanatics, as we've seen far too many times -- should use this as another learning moment, an opportunity to permanently tone down the hateful rhetoric that too often rules in our stadiums, on sports talk radio, and throughout the Internet.

There's nothing wrong with being a passionate supporter of the home team, as long as everyone remembers it's just a game. Frankly, we're not holding our breath on that one. Memories fade. The vitriol returns. But maybe, just maybe, the next time a Yankees fan wants to pour a beer over the head of a Red Sox rival -- or vice versa -- there will be a flicker of how they came together in the wake of 9-11, how they were united again after the Boston Marathon tragedy.

That's the most amazing thing about sports.

Roosevelt recognized the importance of baseball after America was plunged into a world at war. The easier path would've been to shut down, as many of the world's top sporting events did at the time. The Indianapolis 500 wasn't held from 1942-45. The Olympics were called off in both 1940 and '44. The Masters was canceled the last three years of the war.

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