Sports unite people

Op-ed: Sports matter. Here's why.

I am a Baltimore sports fan. I put my heart and soul into our teams. I've allowed my fanaticism to influence — even dictate — major life decisions and have invested more time and money into the pastime than I care to share. I've shed tears over men in purple uniforms who are complete strangers to me. The weight of a Sunday loss hurts like hell, and when it happens on the biggest stage, the pain sticks. Remember when Lee Evans dropped that catch during the 2012 AFC Championship game?

I'm that big a fan — I might even care more than the players. So when someone says "sports don't matter," I must respectfully disagree. They absolutely matter, and here's why:

Tradition. Baseball is America's pastime. Sundays were made for football. Maryland does crab cakes and football, we shout "O" during the National Anthem. Baltimore has purple Friday. My family watches football on Thanksgiving; yours probably does too. This stuff is fun, and these traditions help cast the foundation of our families, friendships and society. A friend of mine was born and raised in North Carolina — Panthers territory, but he's a Cowboys fan because of his father. Ask any sports fan whose affiliation doesn't fit the mold and you're likely to get a rehearsed family explanation that will make perfect sense even if it shouldn't.

Happiness. The next game might be the one positive in an otherwise miserable week. In 2006, the New Orleans Saints gave a spark to a desperate city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. People took a break from rebuilding their lives and celebrated a Saints win. In 2013, the city of Boston and people around the nation rallied around the Red Sox after the marathon bombing there that year; the team went on to win the championship. People turned to those teams as a refuge. Sports are all about moments, and if a game can cheer you up, even for just a second, that's important.

Unity. Sports bring people together across race, religion, gender, geography, political affiliation, sexual orientation, age and any other difference you can name — none of which will matter at 1 p.m. on Sunday. If we are sitting together in matching purple when Joe Flacco finds Steve Smith for a 40 yard TD, we will share high fives or chest bumps or hugs or awkward dance moves. Bald men will have their heads rubbed by the couple sitting behind them, who they just met five minutes ago but have since become close friends with. I've shared some of the happier moments of my life with complete strangers and have connected with people I would have otherwise never spoken to because of sports. Sports are a uniting force, devoid of prejudice. Sports are for everyone.

Many of my life-shaping experiences have come from sports, and I'll cherish those special moments forever. I took my girlfriend to an Orioles game on our first date. I got to celebrate the Terps beating Iowa, then No. 3, a few rows behind the student section with my grandfather; the smile stretched across his face made that moment unforgettable. I get goose bumps thinking about the mile high miracle pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones. I'll tell my grandkids about the time Jamal Lewis rushed for 295 yards. The happiest place I have ever been was Camden Yards on the night of Delmon Young's game winning double in the American League Division Series.

These moments make it worth every tear, scream, smashed object and extra pitcher of beer I bought to wash it all down. Sports allow us to be the most passionate, emotional, opinionated, social and vulnerable versions of ourselves. Those of you who think "it's just a game" don't know what you're missing.

Matthew Pauley is an equity research associate with Janney Montgomery Scott; his email is mrp2476@gmail.com.

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