Death in Sports

by Emily Carson

Photography Courtesy of Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who died in a boating accident last year.

Whenever a celebrity dies, people experience a mixture of emotions. With an actor or a musician, people can remember them by watching or listening to their work; their impact on their community and their craft is praised and analyzed. If their lives were cut short, they are mourned for what they could have shared with the world, taken all too soon.

In many ways, the sports world is the same. The big games, matches and races of athletes are watched again. The mark they leave on their sport and the game is talked about years after they’re gone. And of course, when young players with more talent to give pass away, it is especially tragic.

2016 saw a lot of famous actors and singers pass away and receive huge news coverage. In reality, the perceived uptick in celebrity deaths is just the simple fact that people who became famous in their prime back in the 1960s have reached a vulnerable age and with increased social media coverage, we hear about all kinds of deaths that we might not have before.

Yet, increasingly, we hear about the passing of actors and singers far more than we do the passing of sports players. There are cases where this doesn’t hold up; for example, lots of coverage was given to Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion known at one point as “the most famous human on the planet,” after his death following a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease at 74 years old. But in most cases, this statement holds true: celebrities are given more coverage than athletes.

Take the death of Arnold Palmer, who transformed golf, a sport for the everyman, with his style, looks, personality and talent. One of the best golfers of all time, winning seven majors and 62 PGA tours, he passed away at the age of 87 in Pittsburgh last year. Certainly, his death was covered, but not to the extent of a celebrity, and he was not mourned like any of the Hollywood deaths this year.

Or take the death of Jose Fernandez, a 24-year-old star pitcher for the Miami Marlins who died in a drunken boating accident last fall. For an avid baseball fan, news feeds were filled with news of Fernandez for weeks, as though he was a Hollywood celebrity. In the outside world, his death was another sports death; tragic due to the circumstances and his age, but not covered in the way a celebrity might be.

And those were just the high-profile deaths this year. Coverage for other important athletes, who changed the games they played, was virtually nonexistent.

Simone Schaller, an American hurdler who competed at the 1932 and 1936 Olympic Games, was believed to be the oldest living Olympian prior to her death at age 104. Kenny Sailors, who was credited with inventing the modern-day jump shot in basketball, died of a heart attack at 95. Or Monte Irvin, an outfielder and Hall of Famer who played for the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs, who was one of the first African-American players in the Major Leagues and the oldest living former Negro League player before his death at 96.

This is not a criticism of news coverage or of our societal values. Sports are complex and can’t be packaged neatly into one little community. The World Sports Encyclopedia recognizes 8,000 sports and sporting games, with 442 of them internationally recognized, making "sports" an umbrella term for thousands of different sub-communities that often have nothing to do with each other.

Basically, just because you love basketball doesn’t mean you watch or even understand football. Even sports fanatics usually have a few key teams that they follow, which doesn’t mean they know anything about every other team and player in the history of the sport, or in other cities than the ones they follow.

One could argue that the number of actors and genres and movies make this comparison invalid, but think about the number of genre crossovers and how many actors work with different actors and directors and on different projects. Even if you haven’t heard of a specific actor, you’ve probably seen something they’ve been in and didn’t know it, or watched a movie or show where you knew all their costars.

The sports world rarely makes those kinds of sports crossovers; athletes usually train for one sport their whole lives, becoming known in that community but not necessarily well-known enough in others (unless, perhaps, you’re Michael Jordan).

Entertainment and sports both provide diverting pastimes and their fans often overlap. We can’t expect a decrease in the volume of coverage that celebrity deaths receive, but we can hope for equal coverage for the amazing athletes that pass, to honor their talents and the way they changed their sport and the world.