Yet Another “Storm of the Century” Reignites Great Debate

As parts of Florida and South Carolina continue their recovery efforts following the destructive path of Hurricane Ian, a debate rages about the effects that bigger and more frequent storms will have on everyday life.

No, I am not talking about the debate regarding whether warmer temperatures brought about by climate change means more powerful storms are here to stay. The answer to that is clearly yes, they do. The earth is getting warmer and storms and natural disasters will get bigger and more destructive if nothing is done to reduce the impacts of global warming and climate change. But that is a column for another day.

The debate I am referring to is the debate over the role sport plays in a disaster.

Much of my career in journalism has involved sports. When I wasn’t working as a sports reporter or editor, I served as both an intern and a director in collegiate Sports Information. I have a whole website devoted to my thoughts on baseball. I even have a Master of Science degree in Sport Management. So, needless to say, sports are something that I have a passion for.

Unfortunately, in recent years that passion has started to dim as I grow increasingly tired of the profit at all costs model implored by many sports leagues.

As some readers may recall, the issue of greed over player and spectator health is something that I wrote extensively about during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Time and time again, examples arise where the need to host a sporting event seems to win out over common sense and decency in reading the room.

After delaying the game twice as Hurricane Ian approached, the University of Central Florida hosted SMU this evening while residents of nearby neighborhoods continued their lengthy recovery from storm related flooding and other damage.
Photo R. Anderson

Tonight, my undergraduate alma mater the University of Central Florida hosts Southern Methodist University in a football game that was first slated to be played on Saturday but was rescheduled twice due to Ian.

Likewise, one of my graduate alma maters, the University of Florida, played a rescheduled game of their own on Sunday against Eastern Washington.

While both the UF and UCF stadiums did not suffer major damage, I have no doubt that the games would have been played somewhere even if the stadiums had been destroyed by Ian’s wrath. After all, the show must go on to keep the millions of dollars of revenue flowing.

While UCF’s stadium was declared ready to play, many of the neighborhoods surrounding campus, including my aunt and uncle’s neighborhood, were still dealing with the aftermath of flooding. In many cases, it will take days for the water in some neighborhoods to recede since there is so much water it literally has nowhere to go.

This brings up the debate of whether it is wise to encourage thousands of people to drive to an area that is still engaged in storm cleanup mode just to watch a football game.

Were I still working in a collegiate Sports Information Office and faced with a to play, or not to play, decision, I would be one of the few, if only people, saying that the optics of playing a game while so many people were suffering were not good.

Classes at the University of Florida and other schools in Florida were cancelled ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Ian. As a result, the Gators game in the Swamp against Eastern Washington slipped from Saturday to Sunday.
Photo R. Anderson

Speaking of optics, Florida State University gave away up to for tickets per family to in-state hurricane evacuees for their game against Wake Forest Saturday.

In making the announcement, FSU’s assistant athletic director of ticket operations and service told a local reporter that part of the motivation behind the giveaway for evacuees was to “give them a good experience at a time when they are already experiencing a lot of loss and sadness.”

While I like to think that it was meant as a gesture of goodwill, my sports marketing brain thinks that FSU athletics just wanted to try to make the stadium look less empty on TV; since at the time the ticket giveaway was announced around 13,000 tickets remained unsold.

When I was growing up in Florida, hurricanes meant some wind and some rain, but rarely did they mean widespread flooding that lasted for days. Following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, building codes were enhanced to provide better protection against the wind.

Unlike in Texas, where they seem to build their house out of sticks and straw, most modern homes in Florida are constructed using cinder blocks with straps tying the roof to the walls.

Of course, building a structure to survive Category 5 winds does nothing to protect it when the agent of destruction is multiple feet of water brought about by storm surge and freshwater flooding from torrential amounts of rain.

While the climate change deniers can stick their heads in the sand and scream, “fake storm” all they want, recent years have shown that today’s hurricanes are different from our grandparents’ storms. Ignoring them is not going to make them go away.

Hurricane Ian is expected to be declared the biggest natural disaster in Florida history. That is saying quite a lot, since there have been many disastrous storms to hit the Sunshine State.

As Hurricane Ian trained its wrath on the southwest coast of Florida, one of my initial thoughts was, “oh no, there are so many ballparks in the path of the storm I hope they survive.”

Charlotte Sports Park, the Spring Training home of the Tampa Bay Rays is just one of the many ballparks that were in the cross hairs of Hurricane Ian.
Photo R. Anderson

While it is certainly true that a bulk of the Grapefruit League Spring Training ballparks stretch from Clearwater to Fort Myers, I am somewhat ashamed that my first thought of seeing the storm heading towards the west coast of Florida was I hope the ballparks make it.

My grandparents used to live on Longboat Key and Bradenton Beach. I would hope that if they were still alive, my reaction to the approaching storm would have been concern for their safety and not for the safety of some empty ballparks.

At the time of this writing, I am not aware of any damage to the ballparks along the path of the storm. However, I am confident that if any of the ballparks were damaged, the teams and cities impacted will move heaven and earth to ensure that they are up and running come February. After all, the games must go on.

That is part of my growing struggle with the sport business. Even when Spring Training rolls around in four months, many of the people who work in those ballparks from the ticket takers to the concession stand workers likely will still be dealing with some impacts from Hurricane Ian.

While I would hope that the Major League Baseball teams that employ those seasonal workers will have some sort of assistance plan in place, I can see a scenario where impacted workers are left to fend for themselves.

Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, a great deal was made about the calming effect the return of baseball had on the country. President George W. Bush famously went to Yankee Stadium and threw out the first pitch declaring that it was okay to play ball while the nation was still in mourning.

I don’t dispute the fact that sports can be a good diversion.

My issue is when the diversion becomes the main focus and other issues are ignored.

To be fair, most of the country was not impacted by Hurricane Ian so people might think, “why should they miss out on getting to watch sports, if their homes didn’t blow away or flood?”

That sort of narrow minded approach is part of the problem that seems ripe to tear society apart.

There will be other “Storms of the Century” in the coming years. Of that, I am sure.

What I am not as sure about is whether people will take the necessary steps to be better prepared and try to lessen the impacts, or if they will just continue to whine about the inconvenience of having their sporting event delayed by a few days.

There are no easy answers. The more time I spend working in sports, the more disenchanted I become with the priorities some leagues seem to have of putting profits over people.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to reread some chapters on sports ethics.

Copyright 2022 R. Anderson

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