After a week of national news that made it feel as if I were standing in a phone booth filling with car exhaust, I had two good choices Sunday for clean air: Safeco Field to watch a team on a season-high, six-game winning streak, or the the Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics USA Games. On the chance that the Mariners were going to play more games this season, I went to Husky Stadium.
No offense to James Paxton’s two-hit shutout and the Mariners’ 1-0 win, but my call was good.
Gov. Jay Inslee explained it well in his welcome: “This is the happiest place in the USA today.” For once, a politician was not exaggerating for effect.
Maybe my journalist’s steely impartiality was altered by the prism of ugliness created by the Trump administration’s open contradiction of American values in his blunt-force swerve to exclusion. But whatever the reason, the inclusive celebration of the Special Olympians, in town for the week, was a mood elevator of the most wondrous and legal kind. The day had zero tolerance for melancholy.
Dancing, dapping, mugging, joking and grinning, about 3,000 athletes and 1,000 coaches from all 50 states and the District of Columbia entered the greatest setting in college football and made it, for one sun-dappled afternoon, into the greatest setting in all of sports.
The joy was so radiant, from the athletes parade to the expressions from the performers and speakers, that it could be felt without bearing witness. One volunteer staffer charged with the pressbox elevator operations that denied her any opportunity to look upon the stadium field, said it best:
“I haven’t seen any of it, but I feel it come through the walls and through the people I help,” she said. “So much happiness.”
When you see uniformed cops from various state police agencies during the parade holding hands and dancing with the honorees, it seemed more like a miracle than it ever should have.
Most of these athletes had at some point endured scorn, derision and mockery. Some of that marginalization was from childhood ignorance; some was worse. But Sunday they were the subject of attention, appreciation and affection from the more than 25,000 on hand. They will spend the week competing in 14 sports in the Seattle area, but the shared moments of the ceremony will linger long in their lives, as well as for the onlookers.
The wretched divisiveness permeating our culture has become our toxic partner. There’s a theory making the rounds that the decline in MLB attendance, the steepest in 15 years, is due in some small part to the reluctance to end up sitting next to a stranger who doesn’t agree with your politics and is willing to say so.
There is no way to prove that, of course, but it is hardly implausible to say many people feel the antagonism in public spaces. None was apparent Sunday in Montlake.
Yet even at the USA Games, the polarization came up. The CEO of Special Olympics, Tim Shriver, son of Eunice Shriver, a Kennedy sister who founded the organization 50 years ago, talked about the fractured American sensibility.
“You are the leaders the world needs at this critical moment,” he said, addressing the athletes. “So show America what it means to shower respect on your fellow human beings. Show the world what it means to choose to include. Show others, where they see tension and fear, show them togetherness.
“When others see division, I’m asking you, show them love. Because we are living in a country that needs you right now, and we’re here to take a stand for a different kind of America.”
The different kind of America to which Shriver spoke was all of America, represented well among the athletes. The youngest was eight years old and the oldest 74, and the ethnic heritages, at least from appearances, covered the planet’s variety.
For the longest time, sports have been where the stew’s ingredients gets its first widely analyzed taste. Rarely has it been without bitterness, with a notable exception of Sunday in Montlake.
For those who yearn to keep politics from sports, it helps to understand that the American institutions are inseparable. We take numerous cultural cues from how our political and sports leaders think and behave. That’s why every change of rules and punishments in the NFL is scrutinized through a political/social microscope for clues as to where we’re headed.
Don’t believe it? Consider: The day the NFL accepts private medicinal/recreational use of marijuana will be the day the opioid crisis begins to abate.
That’s the kind of influence sports generates. Sunday at Husky Stadium, sports delivered more influence — a high better than a two-hit shutout.