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Column: Sport can help lead us down a better path

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Column: Sport can help lead us down a better path

There are times when sports bring out the best in us.

Like Victor Cruz writing a heartfelt message on his cleats, dedicated to a 6-year-old victim of the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

There are times when sports bring out the worst in us.

Not even 72 hours removed from the horror in Newtown, there were racist tweets blasting NBC for pre-empting its regular Sunday night football coverage to show President Obama's speech from that devastated community. One of the tweets apparently was sent by a walk-on player at the University of North Alabama (who quickly became a former player).

Sports, of course, had nothing to do with Adam Lanza's walking into that school and killing 26 people, most of them innocent little kids filled with nothing but hope and wonder and goodness. America needs to come to grips with truly important issues: gun control, mental illness, a violent culture among them.

Yet, we need sports - perhaps more than ever - to help us get started on that path toward being a better nation, a better people, a better world. Maybe, just maybe, in some small way the games we play can show us how to be a little nicer to each other, or at least more respectful.

The athletes can lead the way. Their actions have meaning, now more than ever.

So, instead of ranting at the ref for blowing a call, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of hitting someone after the whistle or getting so enraged that injuring the guy in the other uniform seems a worthy option, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of standing triumphantly over a vanquished foe, trumpeting themselves at the expense of someone else, try to remember there's more at stake than a game.

So many are watching.

Given the huge importance we place on what happens in our stadiums and arenas, sports are again positioned, just as they were after 9/11 and other national horrors, to help us uncover some meaningful purpose to an utterly senseless tragedy.

Let's not waste it this time.

There's no doubting the power of sports to lift people up, to inspire us to greater heights, to bring us together as one. There's no doubting the power of sports to console the grieving, to comfort the ailing, to make it easier to move on when we can barely find the strength for our next breath.

``Sports is one of the most effective consolations for people dealing with grief,'' said Ron Marasco, a professor at Loyola Marymount University who has written a book on dealing with loss. ``In the early stages of grief, isolation and loneliness are the biggest problems. That shared communal experience of sports is actually a very healthy thing.''

Just look at what Cruz, a receiver for the New York Giants, did during Sunday's game in Atlanta against the Falcons. He was the favorite player of Jack Pinto, one of those whose life ended on what should've been just another day at school, such a hero to the child that his family planned to bury him Monday in one of Cruz's No. 80 jerseys.

``R.I.P. Jack Pinto,'' Cruz wrote on his playing shoes, along with ``Jack Pinto, my hero'' and ``This one is for you.'' It didn't really matter that the Giants played one of their worst games of the season, losing 34-0.

Such is the power of sports.

``With a family facing that much tragedy, you want to be someone that inspires them, someone that can put a smile on their face at a time where it's tough to do that,'' Cruz said after a loss on the field but a win in life.

That said, sports must do more.

Let's have a serious discussion about all that is wrong with the games we play. The misplaced priorities. The sense of life and death when nothing could be further from the truth. And, especially, the nastiness and hatred it stirs from deep within our souls.

Not long after Cruz played with a heavy heart, we got a sampling of that other side on Twitter.

Some used social media to dole out racist vitriol against Obama while demonstrating how utterly meaningless their own lives must be, since they apparently thought the first quarter of the San Francisco-New England game was more important than a president's stirring words in Newtown.

One of the tweets was reportedly sent by Bradley Patterson, a walk-on long snapper who joined North Alabama's NCAA Division II football team during the season, though he never actually played. Now, he won't get the chance; the school said he was no longer welcome on the team, even as a blocking dummy in practice.

While those such as Patterson, who were actually willing to type out their ugly thoughts in 140 characters or less, make up a very small minority, there was surely a much greater number muttering to themselves about missing their football while Obama spoke, totally oblivious to the suffering in Connecticut.

That's why it's time for all of us to look in the mirror, to not let another tragedy pass without some meaningful change.

So, instead of punching someone in the face down at the local bar because they trash-talked your favorite team, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of posting a vile tweet about a coach's mental capacity because you think he made the wrong call, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of screaming an obscenity at an 18-year-old kid because he dropped a pass or threw an interception, try to remember there's more at stake than a game.

This is not in any way suggesting we shouldn't strive for triumph as much as we ever did. Celebrate it, too.

Life has always been about the Ws and the Ls.

But we can play nice, or at least nicer.

That would be the best way for sports to remember Newtown.

---

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Wizards sit in a good spot at the All-Star break after rollercoaster first half

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USA Today Sports Images

Wizards sit in a good spot at the All-Star break after rollercoaster first half

The Washington Wizards did not make any significant changes to their roster over the summer and valued continuity, knowing they had a solid group of young players on the rise. That sort of stand-pat approach could have resulted in a boring first half of the season, but the Wizards managed to ride quite the rollercoaster from October to the All-Star break. 

A lot of things happened. Some were good and some were bad, but the eventual result as we sit here today is the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference and a 33-24 record, good for a 47-win pace. That's solid, especially considering the dramatic lows this team had to navigate through.

PODCAST: BREAKING DOWN THE WIZARDS' FIRST HALF

Here is a look at the biggest storylines of the 2017-18 Wizards season before the All-Star break...

Injuries played a role

During the 2016-17 season, the Wizards' starting lineup missed a combined 17 games. That group of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat logged more minutes than any other starting five in the NBA. In terms of health, that season was one big best-case scenario and it wasn't to happen again this season.

The Wizards ran into injury troubles before training camp even began when Morris needed sports hernia surgery. By November, Wall was dealing with a left knee injury and Porter has had hip issues all season. Beal and Gortat played in all 57 games, but Wall missed 20, Morris missed nine and Porter was out for four of them. This year their depth was tested much more than it was just one season ago.

RELATED: BEAL SHOWS HE BELONGS ON ALL-STAR STAGE

Inconsistency was a problem

For much of the first half, the Wizards just couldn't get out of their own way. They would rise up to play and often beat the good teams, then turn around and suffer terrible losses to some of the worst teams in the NBA. Many teams go through those types of issues, but the Wizards took it to an extreme. In the first half they beat the Celtics, Rockets, Raptors, Timberwolves and Thunder, yet lost to the Nets (twice), Mavs (twice), Lakers, Hawks and Hornets (twice).

It was a maddening trend and one the players and coaches were well aware of. As it kept plaguing them through the month of January, the Wizards appeared to have no answers, but they rebounded nicely in the final weeks leading up to the All-Star break and some of their losses to teams that were sub-.500 at the time now don't look so bad. The Wizards, in fact, sit 19-9 against sub-.500 teams at the break. Only four teams in the East have more such wins. And the Clippers and Jazz, who were struggling at the time they beat the Wizards, rallied to now hold winning records and be factors in the playoff race.

Oubre and Satoransky emerged

The development of two young players in the first half of the season has vastly changed the Wizards' outlook in the short- and long-term. Kelly Oubre, Jr. took another step and gives them starter-caliber production off their bench. And Tomas Satoransky is now not just a replacement level backup point guard, but a real strength on their roster. 

Oubre continues to cut out his youthful mistakes on defense and has become one of their most consistent offensive players. He is third on the team in double-digit scoring games (38) with an average of 11.7 points, nearly double his output from last season. Satoransky is using his size and athleticism to affect games while making few costly errors. He has the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team and leads the Wizards with a 46.8 three-point percentage. Both Oubre and Satoransky are providing value on both ends of the floor, have high ceilings and are on bargain contracts.

RELATED: BEAL DOESN'T LAST LONG IN THREE-POINT CONTEST

They rallied without Wall

The Wizards were dealt some news in late January that could have crippled their season. They learned that Wall, their best player, would be out up to two months following arthroscopic left knee surgery. He would likely miss well over 20 games and the Wizards had been significantly better with him than without him in the previous months.

The Wizards, though, responded exceptionally well. They won seven of their final nine games before the break after Wall went down. The others in their starting lineup stepped up and Satoransky proved he was more than just a placeholder. They likely won't be able to keep up the 7-2 pace, but the Wizards showed they can still compete and win while Wall is out. That will be important with a tough schedule coming up out of the break.

Locker room disagreements

The Wizards entered this season with heightened expectations and as a result couldn't tolerate some of their early season woes. There was a team meeting that didn't go as planned. There were things said in the media. Then, when Wall went out and the Wizards started playing better, people got carried away and said that Wall was holding the Wizards back. Wall even thought that sentiment was suggested by his teammates and aired his grievances publicly. 

That's what happens when teams have big goals and hit adversity, they point fingers and problems ensue. The Wizards, though, don't seem to have any major, untenable issues. However, their concerns need to be communicated better, not through social media or in front of cameras. That's what makes what could be considered normal locker room strife into national news.

RELATED: 2018 NBA MOCK DRAFT HAS STACKED CLASS

 

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2018 Olympic Hockey Results: U.S. Women back in the gold medal match

2018 Olympic Hockey Results: U.S. Women back in the gold medal match

GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- The Americans played their way back into the only women's hockey game that matters: a showdown with Canada for the Olympic gold medal.

The Americans are back in the title game for a third straight Olympics after shutting out Finland 5-0 on Monday in the semifinals. They will face their arch-rival, which beat the "Olympic Athletes from Russia" 5-0 a few hours later, on Thursday. They Americans will be trying to win their first gold since 1998 when women's hockey made its debut in the Olympics.

And yes, the Americans understand the United States-Canada playing for gold is what everyone expects to see.

READ ALSO: SEE HOW THE DMV OLYMPIANS ARE FARING AFTER WEEK 1

"Definitely the rivalry has been there since I think I was born, so everyone's looking forward to that," said 22-year-old Dani Cameranesi.

This will be the third opportunity at gold for six Americans: captain Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Gigi Marvin, Kacey Bellamy and twin sisters Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson.

"It's honestly a dream come true," Knight said. "This is the world's biggest stage. This is the game that you want. This is the game we've been dreaming of and to have another opportunity to get back here, it's huge."

Olympic newcomer Cameranesi scored two goals and added an assist to lead the Americans over Finland. Marvin started the scoring, and Lamoureux-Davidson and Knight both scored during a 5-on-3 34 seconds apart in the second period. Maddie Rooney made 14 saves for the shutout.

Finland remains winless in eight games against the Americans at the Olympics. The Finns, ranked third in the world last year, will try to take home the bronze medal for the first time since 2010.

"We're got one thing on our mind, and that's to get a medal," said goaltender Noora Raty, who made 33 saves. "They're the best in the world (U.S. and Canada). We just need to get more girls involved so we have more to choose from."

The Americans opened these games a 2-1 loss to Canada wrapping up pool play.

"This was really a gold-medal preparation for us because they're a darn good team, and we had to be ready to play," U.S. coach Robb Stauber said of Finland.

The Americans wasted no time getting on the board. Captain Meghan Duggan found Marvin alone in the slot, and she beat Raty stick-side for the easy goal just 2:25 into the game.

Finland lost defenseman when she had to be helped off the ice and to the locker room after a knee-on-knee collision with Duggan. She was knocked off balance before crashing face-first into the boards, snapping her head back. When play resumed without a penalty, some fans booed. Savolainen returned in the second period.

RELATED: MEN'S HOCKEY GETS PIVOTAL WIN IN POOL PLAY

Stauber said the referee immediately came over and said it was a collision. Duggan said she was really happy Savolainen got up and that any decision about a potential suspension was out of her control.

"There's been some other plays that haven't been put into question, and so I can't imagine that there would be any disciplinary action just based on other things that have been let go," Duggan said.

Cameranesi put the United States up 2-0 with 1:22 left in the period, taking the puck away from Susanna Tapani and skating into the left circle before beating Raty's blocker with a wrist shot top shelf.

Lamoureux-Davidson's slap shot from the left circle came with 2 seconds left on the 5-on-3 at 13:21 of the second period, and Knight got her first goal of this tournament by redirecting a shot from Sidney Morin with 5 seconds left on the man advantage for the 4-0 lead. Cameranesi padded the lead as she scored from the slot over Raty's glove off a pass from Hannah Brandt.

"We're super excited to be in this position again," Lamoureux-Davidson said. "We worked four years to put ourselves in position to compete for a gold medal and we'll enjoy this for a little bit, but we know that this isn't what we came here for. We're ready to go to battle in a couple days."