How sports can heal, unite and change society forever

7:59 PM ET

I WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER that I started work at the University of Central Florida in Orlando on Aug. 8, 2001. It was a joyous time. We were launching the school’s DeVos Sports Business Management Program. Thirty-four days later, the world forever changed on Sept. 11.

It was unimaginable to me that America’s shores could be attacked. While the inconceivable has become all too common globally since 2001, I also never imagined that our hometown of Orlando would be the target an attack as vicious and venomous as the one at Pulse nightclub early on the morning of June 12.

In 2001, I wondered how New York and the nation could begin to heal. People all across the globe were rallying for the United States, and that would bring comfort.

The New York Yankees were in the World Series that year. I was raised as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and the Yankees were our most bitter rivals all those years. But that fall, like most Americans, I became a New York Yankees fan because their presence in the World Series on television was a reminder that ultimately the United States and New York are always strong even in the face of such catastrophe.

Fifteen years later, my wife, Ann, and I wondered how Orlando would ever be the same after a U.S.-born man who pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down scores of people at Pulse, killing 49. But our strength became apparent as soon as Mayor Buddy Dyer started articulating Orlando’s response to the mass killing.

Almost immediately, Central Florida’s sports teams began to rally in support of the victims. The Orlando Magic donated $100,000, and their owners, the DeVos family, gave $400,000 to the victims. The Orlando City Soccer Club donated $100,000. The Tampa Bay Rays raised $300,000 between ticket sales and donations for the game they dedicated to Orlando on Friday night.

Ann and I were at the game, and it was incredibly moving. It was beautiful seeing a huge American flag in the field, framed by rainbow flags. Simultaneously, a men’s choir sang the national anthem while images of the victims appeared onscreen, followed by photos of “We are Orlando” rallies globally and across the United States. People in Paris and Mumbai, India, joined those in New York, Washington, San Francisco and many other cities to support Orlando. Billy Bean, a former player and Major League Baseball’s ambassador for inclusion, threw out the first pitch, and a video of his life was shown as part of the pregame program. Tropicana Field, which normally hosts small crowds for Rays games, was sold-out. Tarps that had covered seats in the upper decks of the stadium since 2008 were removed for the game. The Rays went all-out by showing their love and support for Orlando. Fans wore beautiful T-shirts that said “We are Orlando” in rainbow letters.

We also attended the Orlando City SC match against San Jose on Saturday night. On Friday morning, I had the privilege of addressing the team staff about the power of sports. I could sense they knew how important their match was Saturday night to the healing in Orlando. To Orlando, it was like the Yankees in 2001. It was important.

The team already had announced it would set aside 49 seats in its current home, Camping World Stadium, as well as in a forthcoming Orlando stadium, in a section to permanently commemorate the lives lost at Pulse. Forty-nine empty seats were marked with large rainbow-colored balloons. Before the game, the team offered a salute to the first responders and a gay men’s choir sang the national anthem.

The fans organized on Facebook to have each section wear a color such that the whole stadium looked like a rainbow. Rainbow flags were waving proudly. For the first time in MLS history, the game was stopped after 49 minutes with a moment of silence to pay tribute to the victims and their families.

Orlando sports teams — including the East Coast Hockey League’s Solar Bears and the Arena Football League’s Predators — have done this in the great tradition of using the power of sports to unite and heal.

In addition to the Yankees after Sept. 11, people in New Orleans will tell you that the two most important days after Hurricane Katrina devastated their city in August 2005 came when the Saints returned to the Superdome in 2006 and when they won Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010.

“In the huddle, it does not matter whether you’re African-American, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, or Arab American.”

The Boston Red Sox finished last in the American League East in 2012, 2014 and 2015. But in 2013, the year of the Boston Marathon bombing, they somehow won the World Series. The Red Sox have always been part of the glue — the pride — holding Boston together. The term “Boston Strong” after the bombing became an example for other cities experiencing tragedy.

Using “We are …” became part of our dialogue after the Marshall football team was killed in a tragic plane crash in November 1970.

The Virginia Tech campus had many commemorations all week for the 32 people killed in the shootings in April 2007. The first regularly scheduled event afterward was a baseball game. The university president got some pushback on that decision, but he knew there was something about sports. The stadium was packed. It had become the physical gathering place for the Virginia Tech community as it grieved and tried to envision becoming strong again. Their stadium was the place to begin healing and moving forward.

Months after a devastating tornado outbreak hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham in April 2011, the Alabama Crimson Tide won the national championship, uniting those cities as never before.

Ann and I watched and cheered for the U.S. women in the World Cup as the team got to the finals against Japan in July 2011. When the game ended and our team lost, we simultaneously turned to each other with tears in our eyes, never having discussed this but realizing the victory was much more important for Japan because of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that had torn apart the country earlier that year. Our friends in Japan told us how important that was to lift the national spirit.

Sports can heal and unite and can change society forever. Think Jackie Robinson. Think Billie Jean King. Think of the horrible wave of Islamophobia that has swept our country in recent years, and then think about Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Ann and I just returned from Muhammad Ali’s funeral in Louisville, Kentucky, the day before the shootings in Orlando. Muhammad and Kareem represent the true spirit of Islam as a religion of peace. Kareem was also there to pay tribute to Muhammad — two of the most well-known Muslims in this country and two men of peace.

But the ultimate power of sport happens inside the huddle. Our friend and former football coach Bill Curry calls it “the miracle of sport.” In the huddle, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, Middle Eastern, Latino, Asian or Native American. It matters not whether you are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or believe in any other religion or in no religion. It does not matter whether you are young or old, gay or straight, come from a rich family or poor family. The team simply cannot win unless everyone pulls together. Imagine if that power of sports spread to all institutions and communities across the globe.

I have lived 60 of my 70 years in New York, Boston and Orlando, so three of the most horrific terrorist attacks hit close to home. But no matter where you lived in this country, the responses have always shown America’s strength.

I am proud of the contributions of sports this week in Orlando and in the other historical examples I have cited. But I am proudest of the way Orlando has come together now and has been joined by Americans from every corner of our nation and people from around the world in standing up in support of the 49 victims and their families. I am also proud the world is standing up for justice against homophobia and Islamophobia. We are Orlando. We are united.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the President of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.

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