In his novel ‘A Modern Utopia’, H.G. Wells argues against sports and their rise in American society as being an instrument of distraction of the masses — an institution that stands against what a free society would truly hold important.
“Our Founders made no peace with this organisation of public sports. They did not spend their lives to secure for all men and women on the earth freedom, health, and leisure, in order that might waste lives in such a folly.”
Now admittedly, I hadn’t given much thought to the merit of this argument prior to the last few weeks. But then the horrible tragedy in Toronto happened on April 23, 2018. And the first scene that popped into my head the next day after the shock and sadness had worn off? George W. Bush.
Shortly after the events of 9/11, President Bush came to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx for Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. With 55,000 eyes at the stadium, and hundreds of millions more around the world watching him, the President took the mound and delivered a perfect strike down the middle for the ceremonial first pitch. At that moment, whatever your political affiliation may have been, it was impossible to not get caught up in the moment and share in its symbolism. Knock us down, and we will get right back up. Together. As a collective. As a society. Good will prevail over evil. It was collective catharsis, and the stadium that night was merely the therapy couch.
And when I finished thinking about that event, my next thought went to the tune of “this is horrible…thank God the Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays and Toronto FC all have games coming up, the city needs this.”
Now, the other sports teams have their own lauders, but the game that I was looking forward to the most was this past weekend’s tilt against the Chicago Fire. It would be Toronto FC’s first home game after those horrible events from the week prior, and to me, more than any other sports team in Toronto, TFC and BMO Field represent what Toronto really is.
Look at a snapshot of a Toronto neighbourhood, look at all the wonderful cultures that come together to weave the fine fabric that makes the backdrop for this amazing city. Now dare to tell me that the roster for Toronto FC doesn’t reflect that? Look up at the stands of BMO Field, and tell me that couldn’t just be an entire collection from the Beaches, Etobicoke, Brampton, the Annex, Mississauga or North York?
Toronto FC, its fans, its stadium, and its culture, more so than any other team in this city, embody that special feeling of what it means to be a Torontonian. In the years that I have been a seasons ticket holder, my neighbours have been a Catholic priest, an Irish professor, a Jamaican carpenter, an Italian food & beverage worker, an Indian doctor, a Guyanese banker, and many more. That’s Toronto. That’s the city in a snapshot.
And the second reason, I was looking forward to this weekends game was that it marked an important event for my wife and I, and our family. It was “Sikh Heritage Celebration” day at BMO Field.
Look around Toronto and you will see many a turbaned Sikh man walking around, enjoying and contributing their lot to this fine city. Now look at the makeup of the crowd for a Blue Jays or a Leafs game, and you’d swear that a turbaned Sikh doesn’t reside anywhere within the boundary of the 416/905. It just doesn’t resonate. Now, this isn’t to say that there is anything nefarious or off-putting about those two sports, as Rogers knows very well how much Sikhs love their Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi, but for one reason or another, you don’t see as many fans in the crowds for the live games.
When the people around Sikh Heritage Month (to whom I have no connection) planned this event, I thought, “fantastic, this will be the perfect opportunity for Sikh families to come and see the Reds at BMO, and realize what a welcoming place this is.”
And you fellow Reds fans… you did not disappoint!
I spoke to many who were attending their first game, and all around me I heard the same refrain “this is fantastic” or “this is such great fun.” Prior to kickoff, there was a pregame celebration event, and it was not uncommon to see non-Sikh folks enjoying some lively bhangra music, while I saw a group of first-time visiting Sikh fans conversing with two Italian-Canadians about who the important players on Toronto FC were. That moment was a microcosm of what this city was, and is, and will always be.
One of my favourite things about Toronto FC stems from the attitude of the captain, Michael Bradley. Everyone knows he sets the tone on the pitch, but it sure does seem like many of the players take his cue from him off of it as well. Whether it be subtle quotes on his Instagram page that stand in stark contrast to the xenophobic statements coming from certain world leaders, or standing up for equality, Bradley always has a measured response in him. This past week was no different. Speaking to reporters in Guadalajara, it was clear that Bradley and Toronto FC understood the magnitude of what happened back home, and their role in the healing process.
Greg Vanney spoke to me about this after the game when I asked him whether the players and coaches had talked about their role. Vanney stated that the team wanted to let every one know that they were playing hard for them, “and how we could represent the city, with our ethic, our work rate, and give everything we have for them.” Vanney admitted that the team wanted to get a result for them, but falling short of that, at least be a good example.
Those who came for the 100th time, or many who came for the first time because of the Sikh Heritage Month, would never look at that team, its players, their effort, and not think that effort was ever an issue. More than many other teams, Toronto FC and its players understand their role in this city.
At the end of the day, professional team sports are men and women playing children’s games for money. The most cynical of all of us can write a thousand words to counter mine, and talk about how this is nothing but capitalistic greed, and an evil of society, that prevents us from being “truly woke.” It is billionaire corporations, who pay labour to strut and fret their hour upon the stage, running up and down, full of sound and fury, but in the end, truly signifying nothing. That is the pessimist.
But the optimist would argue against Wells. There is good in sport. There is good that sports teams can provide as a matter of civic duty for the city which they are a part of. They can unite, they can uplift. They can serve as an example. I choose to look at Toronto FC, and the other sports teams in this city, as an optimist. Toronto isn’t the pessimist type. We have swag, and we’ll be damned if we let some coward in a van take that away from us. We will heal together, and we will continue to be who we are because of our strength. And if we ever should lose our way, we will look to the motto of our local soccer team to remember what it truly means to be a Torontonian.
All For One.