Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Cynicism’s Tonic, Inspiration’s Source

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Youth is positive and innocent.  It sees mostly the good – in the world, people and sports.  I was 13 when my athletic hero, Maryland’s Len Bias, died of cocaine intoxication.  It hurt, but I attributed his death to a mistake made by a kid digesting a suddenly complex world.  Drug use and Bias didn’t coalesce in my mind.  His dunks, All-American honors and two ACC Player of the Year awards were what I’d remember; the drug use and his death were terrible and tragic footnotes.

I am much older now and my perspective, on Bias and sports in general, has changed.  My unchallenged youthful optimism has been partially compromised by cynicism – scars left by an imperfect world.  Bias still holds a place in my heart, but I remember a basketball program run amuck and an athletic department brought to its knees as much as the on-court brilliance of my favorite player. 

There were more insults.  Pete Rose happened.  I got his autograph shortly after his book My Story was released.  It was a fraud’s tale.  I lived through the steroid era: first in track and field, then in baseball.  Remember Tim Donaghy?  He was an NBA referee…until doing time for betting on NBA games.  The head football coach at the University of Central Florida, George O’Leary, lost the same job at Notre Dame in 2001 after lying about his football accolades and listing a Master’s degree he never earned on his bio.   

I could go on, but that’ll do.  I am cynical, not jaded - there is too much good in the world of sports for that.  And I got a dose of goodness last week from an unlikely source: an awards show.

The Emmys, Oscars, American Music Awards, etc. - I revile these things.  They are contrived, style-dominant and substance lacking.  Every now and then someone like Esperanza Spalding shocks the world and wins a Grammy for Best New Artist, but award shows are mostly self-indulgent ego strokes, beauty pageants for the most popular movies, television shows, actors, songs and musicians.  And then the 2014 ESPY Awards (ESPN’s Oscar’s for the sports world) stilled my cynical heart. 

There was plenty of pandering to the popular but these ESPYS offered three substantive moments not soon forgotten.  The first ever Pat Tillman Award was given to Josh Sweeney, a Marine who stepped on an IED in Afghanistan in 2009 and lost his legs.  No matter…he scored the gold-medal-winning goal in sledge hockey at the Olympics this winter.  In a word: resilient. 

The annual Arthur Ashe Award was given to Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player.  His speech included this quote from Ashe: “Start where you are, use what you have and do what you can.”  Needless to say, Sam is doing what he can to tear down stereotypes and thwart prejudice.  In a word: courage. 

The third poignant moment was ESPN’s recognition of one of its own, long-time “Sportscenter” anchor Stuart Scott, with the Jimmy V Award.  I knew Scott had cancer.  I didn’t know he was diagnosed seven years ago or the depth of his medical challenges (which he very bluntly described).  I also didn’t know he was the father of two beautiful daughters, a fact that put a knot in this father’s throat.  His speech was proud and defiant, but also vulnerable and resigned.  He spoke, as Coach Valvano once did, of never giving up and of living life on his terms.  But he also admitted to needing others to help him fight on days when the disease temporarily broke his will.  It was a brutally honest glimpse into the world of a cancer patient.  It was, in a word, unforgettable. 

At the inaugural ESPY Awards in 1993, Coach Valvano, stricken with cancer and just two months before his death, announced the founding of The V Foundation for Cancer Research and encouraged us to do three things every day: laugh, think and cry.  The 2014 ESPYS and the moving stories of Josh Sweeney, Michael Sam and Stuart Scott, checked all those blocks, several days henceforth, and left me, in a word, inspired.

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