The game was over, and the postgame interview appeared to be, too, when Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey suddenly decided otherwise.
By then, the sting of his team’s 65-55 loss to Ohio State was already an afterthought. Instead, like a lot of us, he was still heartbroken about the school shootings in Newtown, determined to say something about them.
“The last thing I want to say,” Kelsey began, as reporters scrambled to turn their tape recorders back on Tuesday night, “is I’m really, really lucky, because I’m going to get on an eight-hour bus ride, and I’m going to arrive in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and I’m going to walk into my house, and I’m going to walk upstairs, and I’m going to walk into two pink rooms with a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old laying in that pink room, with a bunch of teddy bears laying in that room.
“And I’m going to give them the biggest hug and the biggest kiss I’ve ever given them. And there’s 20 families in Newtown, Conn., that are walking into a pink room with a bunch of teddy bears with nobody laying in those beds,” he said. “And it’s tragic.”
No one in the room knew that was coming, nor the call to action that came next. The only thing that was certain was that Kelsey’s voice grew stronger the longer he went on.
“I know this microphone is powerful right now because we’re playing the (seventh)-best team in the country. I’m not going to have a microphone like this the rest of the year, maybe the rest of my life. And I’m going to be an agent of change with the 13 young men I get to coach every day and the two little girls that I get to raise. …
“But,” he said, “we’ve got to change.”
Kelsey is one of dozens of mid-major coaches hoping for a job at a big school like Ohio State someday, but he’s a parent first. When he played basketball at Cincinnati, Kelsey was a captain and twice voted the team’s most inspirational player. So maybe the most surprising thing about the past few days is that he wasn’t the only coach or player to step forward and say what was on his mind.
At Syracuse the other night, coach Jim Boeheim also used the last moments of his postgame interview to make certain the next day’s stories weren’t focused solely on his career milestone 900th win.
“If we cannot get the people who represent us to do something about firearms, we are a sad, sad society,” Boeheim said Monday. “If one person in this world, the NRA president, anybody, can tell me why we need assault weapons with 30 shots _ this is our fault if we don’t go out there and do something about this. If we can’t get this thing done, I don’t know what kind of country we have.”
There were plenty of other worthy remarks and measured gestures from the world of sports in the aftermath of Newtown _ almost too many to list. A few weeks ago, NBC announcer Bob Costas caught plenty of criticism by calling for saner gun-control laws during a brief halftime essay the night after the tragedy in Kansas City. Chiefs linebacker Javon Belcher shot his live-in girlfriend to death after an argument, then drove to the team’s facility and, in view of his coach and general manager, turned the gun on himself.
People are still debating whether Costas overstepped. Never mix sports and politics. But those were the old rules.
For years, many athletes and coaches went out of their way to avoid taking a stand on anything that happened outside the white lines. It was like stepping on the third rail of sports and almost a guarantee that endorsements would dwindle or disappear altogether. It might even cost them a job.
Times have changed, and if the events of the past few weeks are any indication, that corner of the sports world is about to change, too. Athletes and coaches have always had the platform, and now a few of the braver souls have shown them how to use it in a responsible way for something more important than selling tickets.
Here’s hoping there’s no turning back now.