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Keith Strudler: The Sadness Of Death And Sports

Death is not a new story. It’s a news story, but not a new one. In fact, it’s one of the three things my grandfather told us we all had to do – the other two were being born and paying taxes, and apparently that third one is now up for debate. So perhaps Sunday’s somber sports news isn’t all that unique. That on Sunday, two prominent American sports figures passed away. First, we learned that Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died during a late night boating accident. Then we heard that golfing legend Arnold Palmer passed away that same day, much more peacefully it seems. Hernandez was a promising young talent, all of 24 years old. He’s a two time all-star and won Rookie of the Year in 2013. In pure athletic terms he was likely reaching the peak of his career. From a fiscal perspective, the gravy train was nearly in his grasp. Hernandez was eligible for arbitration in 2017 and free agency two years later. And if his numbers stayed where they are, I’m sure he’d bank more than the $2.8 million he earns this season – and way more than the $651,000 he got last year. With all apologies if this sounds crass or insensitive – and it’s not meant to be – but Hernandez never was able to cash in on all his talent and hard work. If not for him, than perhaps for his first child that’s on the way.

No one will ever say that Arnold Palmer didn’t get his fair share. Perhaps the most famous and popular golfer of all time – even if not the greatest – Palmer leveraged his golf success to sell everything from cars to blood thinner drugs. He’s even got a drink named after him. An Arnold Palmer, half ice tea, half lemonade. Some people think having a building is the ultimate extension into perpetuity. He’s got a product category. 200 years from now, assuming the planet doesn’t dissolve in ruins, someone will be sipping a freeze dried Arnold Palmer served by a robot hologram – or whatever the future looks like. That, my friends, is what eternity looks like. So while his death at 87 was sad, it certainly wasn’t tragic.

Perhaps unlike people from other professions, it’s rather simple to quantify, or eulogize, the professional life of former athletes. We can measure their wins and losses, awards, championships – pretty much anything that can have a number or trophy attached to it. For better or worse, that statistic become a validation when life ends. For example, Walter Payton’s death felt especially important to so many people because of how much he accomplished on the field. The same could be said for Wilt Chamberlain, or Mickey Mantle. We are particularly sensitive to the loss of athletic giants, because we can literally see exactly what they accomplished on a stat sheet. That’s not as easy to do with, say, a teacher, or plumber, who’s life service follows a far more qualitative route. So when Arnold Palmer died, we all knew we lost a great one – and I’ve got the numbers to prove it.

Which is probably also why it’s so sad to lose an athlete before his or her prime, or at least before they’ve finished their career, which most athletes refer to as their first death. Because they never got to fill their stat sheet. Jose Fernandez had almost four good years in the majors – a grand total of 38 wins, 17 losses, and two all-star games. But we all know what might have been had he not gone boating late Saturday night.

Perhaps that is why losing athletes, both young and old, feels especially tragic. We know exactly what we’ve lost, and we also know what we never had a chance to see. My apologies is this sounds crude, but people die every day. And it’s always sad, especially to friends and family. But losing an athlete isn’t simply sad. It’s also symbolic. And perhaps it also serves as a reminder that each of us has a limited an undetermined amount of time on this planet. Time that we will also fill with our own wins and losses, even if it’s not recorded that way. Professional athletes are perhaps the perfect personification of vibrant living, nearly mythological and god like. But of course, athletes aren’t gods, and their vitality is, like everything, fleeting.

Which makes the loss of two glorious performers on one day particularly disheartening. It’s a measure of what has and could have been. It’s not a new story. But it is one worth remembering.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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