Newtown school shooting: Jim Boeheim perpetuates discussion on gun control, mental illness and social change

USA TODAY Sports

As Americans continue to mourn the Newtown school shooting, the sports world is playing a new role in the wake of a tragedy.

For over a century American sports has played the escape-from-reality role in our society.

After the attack on our country on Sept. 11, 2001, people rallied around baseball and football to forget, at least for a few hours a day, about what had happened and the pain and sadness it was causing.

Like clock work, almost every night there's a sporting event on television that allows a person to sit back, relax and forget about work, personal issues or world problems.

The escapism of sports is why fans usually react passionately when non-sports related issues wander into their realm.

However, sometimes sports, and its medium, are used as a catalyst to kick start a nationwide discussion that could result in necessary change.

Suddenly, people who purposely ignore the news (because it's too sad), reading up on hot-button issues (because they're too decisive) or standing up for what you believe in (because "what's the point?") by tuning into sporting events on ESPN are all of a suddenly forced to watch, listen and discuss because their escape is now perpetuating a real-world discussion.

As a sports writer I am pretty fortunate, as I make a living by escaping every day. Whether it involves me writing a scouting report about a team's upcoming opponent, creating power rankings that fans can discuss or recapping the day's game, at the end of the day it usually doesn't matter in the big scheme of things.

But, sometimes that changes.

On Monday, in the catacombs of the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., I waited more than 10 minutes for Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim to take the podium to comment on winning his 900th game - a contest his team nearly choked away after being ahead by as much as 22 points in the second half.

For nearly 17 minutes, the 68-year-old talked about the game, assessed the play of his players, sharing his accomplishment with Syracuse's "greatest basketball player of all time" and good friend Dave Bing, the tragic loss of newspapers and then, as every reporter was close to tuning out, he turned the topic to gun control.

As Boeheim walked out there was a buzz in the media room, a lot of raised eyebrows and the usual, "you never know what you're going to get at a Jim Boeheim press conference,' comments.

On Tuesday, as Boeheim made his rounds with sports talk radio superpowers like Dan Patrick, the soon-to-be second-winningest Division I coach of all-time admitted he wanted to create some buzz and make those who usually may not pay attention to politics, start paying attention.

"That was a good moment," Boeheim said. "I knew it would get attention."

The same day, former Connecticut Huskies head coach Jim Calhoun used his Hall of Fame status to voice his opinion.

"I don’t think there’s any politics about gun control," the former UConn coach said. "In my opinion, nobody should have an automatic weapon unless they’re...protecting the country. The idea that children would be faced with that, or teachers that were trying to help them...there are other things in my lifetime that I can explain — a distraught kid, a fired employee. But this is so nonsensical.

"This was well-said by the president: Let’s make sure (the people of Newtown) understand they aren’t alone in this. This is a Newtown issue, it’s a Connecticut issue, it’s an American issue and it’s a worldwide issue."

Villanova men's basketball head coach Jay Wright used Twitter.

That night, Winthrop men's basketball head coach Pat Kelsey, after playing the No. 4-team in the nation the Ohio St. Buckeyes, used an opportunity to speak up, too.

"And I don't know what needs to be done. I'm not smart enough to know what needs to be done, OK? I know this country's got issues. Is it a gun issue? Is it a mental illness issue? Or is it a society that has lost the fact, the understanding, that decent human values are important?

"And our leaders - I didn't vote for President Obama. But you know what? He's my president now. He's my leader. I need him to step up. Mr. Boehner, the Speaker of the House, he's a Xavier guy, he's a Cincinnati guy, OK, he needs to step up.

Agree or disagree with Boeheim, Calhoun, Wright or Kelsey, the fact is New York Giants star wide receiver Victor Cruz needed to visit the home of the deceased 6-year-old Jack Pinto on Tuesday.

Pinto, who was buried in a replica Cruz jersey just days ago, was one of 20 children killed in the Newtown school shooting last Friday - Dec. 14, 2012.

The event, maybe the worst tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001, was so heavy it was impossible for us "sports people" to escape.

For me, for the first time in my life, the escape power of sports wasn't strong enough.

All I wanted to do, much like Boeheim, Calhoun and Kelsey, was spark up a discussion with someone about gun control, mental illness and social change.

I didn't want to argue or evoke angry from second-amendment advocates, like myself. I just wanted to have an adult discussion about what we can all do better to try to prevent this from happening again - because obviously we're not doing enough.

How does sports fit into all of this?

Thanks to Boeheim and other sports figures who have decided to speak out, or doing just simple things to pay their respects to the victims, the discussion is still alive and well five days later.

For the first time, maybe ever, a situation came along and the sports world decided to not help bury emotions so we could all move on. Instead, the sports world has decided to use it as an opportunity to evoke possible change.

Slowly, sports will return to being a full-time distraction. But for now it is playing a key role in American society and its not being ignored.

Dispatches from Newtown: How a sports complex offered a reprieve for a day

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