How to cope with the death of our sports heroes
Lincolnton, NC – L Town Radio by Kevin L. Burke
During my lifetime, several of my sports heroes have passed on from this world. Though I have never met most of these coaches and superior athletes or watched them play in person, I was deeply saddened by their deaths.
One of my earliest memories is the death of Vince Lombardi. I remember being in the back seat of my father’s car when I heard the breaking news on the radio. Although the Super Bowl trophy namesake had more recently served as coach of the Washington Redskins, I was enthralled (and still am) with this coaching legend of my favorite NFL team, the Green Bay Packers.
I have also been personally impacted by the deaths of Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali and, now, Arnold Palmer, to name a few. I had the good fortune of seeing Palmer in person at Augusta National Golf Course. I got to briefly meet Mickey Mantle in Tallahassee, Fla.
While these sports heroes weren’t personal friends of mine, I felt more than the usual sadness at their passing. I’m confident many of you have felt the same when your sports heroes have died.
While the loss of our sports heroes is not as traumatic as the loss of close relatives and loved ones, we still react as if they had been a significant part of our lives – because they have. As in the recent death of the Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, even though he is someone I have not closely followed, I still felt a real sadness due to the tragic nature of his passing.
There are several reasons why we may feel impacted by the deaths of sports stars. We must realize reactions to death are numerous – and we all may deal with death much differently. For the serious sports fanatic, the death of a hero can be close to losing an extended member of your family.
If a sports star is someone we have followed since childhood, that athlete or coach has been a part of our lives for a long time. This personal hero may have had the type of athletic career we dreamed of having, or simply admired, so we enjoyed their pursuits vicariously. We likely find it a bit unsettling to realize he or she is no longer around. Also, the chance to meet that star or watch them play is forever gone.
The passing of our sports stars is likely to create stronger feelings of loss today due to the numerous opportunities to watch (i.e. increased television coverage, streaming) and connect with them through digital or social media. The almost 24/7 opportunities to follow our favorite teams, sports and athletes certainly can be a catalyst for keeping sports a prominent, personal part of our lives.
The opportunity to express our feelings to others through social media may be helpful in coping with the death of our heroes. We may in some small way feel connected to them or a part of our hero’s life story by commenting publicly on his or her passing.
For many of us, we seek to be around others when someone we care about dies. In this manner, social media may help us by being able to read the expressions of others who also valued the athlete. For those who like to be alone to deal with loss, social media can be helpful because it can allow us a chance to express ourselves without having to be around other people.
Another aspect that can make the death of our favorite sports stars seem so personal is the forced reminder of our own mortality. While we are all aware no one lives forever, experiencing the loss of someone we have held up on a pedestal for so long really hits home. If death can happen to them, it will happen to me.
As the legendary Yogi Berra said, “It’s not over, ’til it’s over.” But when our sports heroes die, an important part of our life is over.
Kevin L. Burke is a sport psychology professor and consultant at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @sportpsyching
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