April 4, 2016

SILVER | The Human vs. Business Side of Sports

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Following the firing of Cornell men’s basketball head coach Bill Courtney a couple of weeks ago, Jeremy Hartigan, the associate director of athletics for communications, tweeted out “Incredibly sad that Bill Courtney will no longer be Cornell’s head basketball coach. Great basketball mind, but even better friend.”

This got me thinking. Even though Cornell is not known for most of its sports, there are still many people who devote their lives to Cornell athletics. And as mundane as the firing of the basketball coach is for a struggling Ivy League team to the average Cornellian, it means the world to those involved.

I kept reading through tweets by Hartigan and other people who were close to and worked with Courtney. All of them had great things to say about Courtney, even if his efforts were not shown in a drastically improved basketball program. He was “always first class,” Hartigan later tweeted. “One of the kindest, most respectable coaches,” another tweet read.

One thing was clear: Cornell basketball might be looking toward the future, but this University lost a well-respected man.

This brings me to the main point of this column. Sports, as much as they are a business-first world, driven by what’s best for a team’s success, is just as much human as it is business. And this often gets lost in the weeds.

I’m from just outside D.C., so naturally I’m a very big Capitals fan. Finally, this could be the year it all goes right for D.C. sports. It’s been 23 years since we won a professional championship; the most of any city that carries all four major sports teams. And yet, this season, general manager Brian MacLellan traded away forward Brooks Laich; the longest tenured athlete in D.C. at the time of his departure.

Laich was a fan favorite among Caps fans. There was the story where he stopped on the side of the road to help a stranger change their tire just hours after a crushing loss to Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens in game seven of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Then there’s the case of TJ Oshie, who was traded to my Capitals last summer from the St. Louis Blues. Oshie — most known for his incredible showing in the shootout against Russia in the 2014 Olympics — was loved by all in St. Louis, and even caused 5-year-old fan Libby Liu to have a meltdown that went viral across the sports world. In turn, Oshie called Libby live on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and sent her a care package of signed Capitals gear.

Stories like these are what made Laich and Oshie so beloved in their areas, and yet, they were traded away like pawns in a chess match.

But I get it, this is all a business as much as a form of entertainment. At times, fans get too attached to players because, in our happy place, we imagine that these men or women would be our best friends. We look up to these people because they followed their dream and made it a reality. Laich and Oshie were just two athletes, two people involved in the sports world that were traded away for pragmatic reasons at the business level.

This doesn’t even touch on the toll that the business-side of sports has on the players’ families. While I’m confident that Courtney will land on his feet in another organization, his family had temporarily created their lives in Ithaca. Now, they are left with questions and uncertainty about what’s next.

While we idolize all these professional and collegiate athletes, coaches and managers, it’s important to keep one thing in mind. They are people, just like you and me.