Missing America’s Pastime: The Community of Sport

Story by Roger Moore

It was a random Wednesday – or so it seemed.

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz had completed warm-ups and were ready to tip-off in a National Basketball Association contest in Oklahoma City. Already in the news, the COVID-19 Coronavirus, now a household term, brought the abrupt cancellation of that basketball game. American and international sport followed suit, canceling just about every form of competition on the planet.

For Stillwater and Oklahoma State University things changed drastically the week before Spring Break. Besides the economic impact – Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby felt the conference would lose between $16 and $18 million just for the men’s NCAA basketball tournament – a college town without its spring sports just doesn’t feel right.

Oklahoma State wrestling has won 34 NCAA Championships and annually enters the sport’s premier event among the participants favored to make some noise. Spring Break 2020 did not include a tournament for the first time since World War II. This year’s event was expected to break attendance records due to its housing on a football field in Minneapolis. Would it have mattered if OSU finished second, third? 10th? Nope. What matters is the gathering of wrestling’s cult to celebrate what so many love despite its lack of a national spotlight.

That same weekend, March 20, was to include the opening of OSU’s new bright-and-shiny O’Brate Stadium, perhaps college baseball’s new elite facility. Early March means that baseball is in full swing, and locals no doubt would have kept the turnstiles moving on sunny afternoons and weekend evenings. Would it really have mattered had the home team won? For most, yes, but for plenty, it was enough just to have the ability to sit and watch a baseball game, a bag of peanuts and ice-cold beverage in hand, listening to the umpire’s calls, the sound of aluminum striking leather, the smell of hot dogs in the air, and enjoy the rhythm of a game most grew up with.

Across the street from O’Brate sits the Greenwood Tennis Complex, home to one of the nation’s rising tennis programs. March meant the beginning of conference matches and preparation for the 2020 NCAA Tennis Championships, men’s and women’s, for two weeks in May. OSU has hosted NCAA wrestling and golf championships, but 2020 marked something most would have scoffed at just over a decade ago. What would collegiate tennis’s top event mean to Stillwater? Ask any hotel manager or restaurant owner; any rental car provider or server of spirits. The economic impact for Stillwater merchants would have, perhaps, made their year. Funny how a “non-revenue” sport can have such an economic impact on a community.

What of OSU softball, coming off a 2019 Women’s College World Series appearance? Or the surging men’s basketball squad, most likely a host for a few NIT games. Alan Bratton’s golfers, like the wrestlers, were probably set for another top-tier finish by the time the spring season concluded. No matter what your opinion of sports and what it provides to our daily culture, the last two months have been void of a significant part of everyone’s life.

High school athletes have had to deal with similar emotions. Doug Chesbro’s wrestlers – his final team after announcing his retirement in January – got in just under the wire and crowned a lightweight state champion in Cael Hughes. High school state basketball made it to the final eight before shutting down operations. All spring sports stopped, caput, canceled.

Some might argue that sports hold too high a place in American culture. And they would be right. Check any college town’s largest “cathedrals” and you will see a football stadium. Sport has become a religion for some, a ritualistic endeavor from August into June. It occupies much time with cable television. If one is so inclined, he or she can attend a collegiate, high school, or junior high sporting event for 10 of 12 months per year. Why? Is it an escape from the daily grind or is it just what we do, something we’ve grown accustomed to, growing up in a college town?

A long time ago, in the final decades of the nineteenth century, a Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin had an idea, a hope, to use sport as an educational tool. His “not if you win or lose but to have played” highlighted what the Olympic Movement was originally about. Capitalism has certainly changed the game in the last century, but, at its essence, sport is originally based on running and jumping, throwing and catching, wrestling, trying to find interesting ways to occupy our free time. Theodore Roosevelt pushed for an active lifestyle and his efforts, in part, led to a boom in sports culture in the U.S. – some say to its detriment. But, dating to the 1920s, sports became a part of our daily life. In Stillwater, Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College began its rise to prominence because of the efforts of influential Edward Clark Gallagher. Stillwater’s love of sports developed thanks to Gallagher’s wrestlers, 1940s football squads, Iba’s cagers, Holder’s golfers, Barry Sanders, Eddie Sutton, and continues through Samantha Show’s bat-flipping home run trots during a wild softball season in 2019.

Ask most sports fans and they will probably tell you they don’t give a darn who wins or loses right now, just give them a game to go to, to watch, to get back to some sense of normalcy.

An early nineteenth-century historian, Joseph Strutt, stated that the best way to learn about a people is through investigation of their sports and pastimes. What do they do for fun? Stillwater, like the rest of the United States, has plenty of sporting options, and without them, something is missing, not right, out-of-the-ordinary. If and when things return to some semblance of normal, most won’t attend a sporting event or game of their choice because they really care about wins and losses. It will be because Gallagher-Iba Arena, O’Brate Stadium, the Stillwater High Fieldhouse, Boone Pickens Stadium and any other venue hosting a game of some sort is where birds of a feather flock together.