The Fifth Lap
I am still not completely sure how I feel about the events surrounding the cancellation of last weekend's New York City Marathon in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, with one key exception - there are lessons to be learned.
In the midst of the destruction and tragedy, whether or not to hold the annual marathon became a source of heated controversy.
The arguments and analysis ranged from pragmatic to emotional. Supporters of holding the event saw it as a way to show the city's resilience, to attract media attention and donations, to act as an economic boom and to give weary residents a welcome distraction.
Those against holding the marathon viewed it as an affront to those still suffering from the destruction and a waste of resources at a time when millions were still out of power and areas of the city were still reeling from fatal flooding.
On the Wednesday after the storm, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Road Runners President Mary Wittenberg announced the race would go on as planned on the previously planned route. But just two days later, the event was canceled, citing the divisiveness it had caused.
Finally, on Sunday, thousands of runners gathered, organized by spontaneous Facebook groups or parties who had travelled together, and ran their own unofficial marathons, lapping intermittently around Central Park.
These events lend themselves to a myriad of angles about the role of sports during tragedy, both at an individual level and a societal one. However, I would like to focus on one lesson in particular that can prove especially relevant for collegiate athletic programs.
It is worth exploring why the marathon became such a lightning rod while other events, including New York Giants and New York Knicks games, went on with little fanfare.
Part of it probably had to do with timing. Because of the number of out-of-towners who fly in to participate or spectate, the organizers were forced to make a decision much earlier in the week while the shock of the hurricane was still in effect.
The geography of the events also likely played a role. Unlike the sequestered NBA or NFL venues, the marathon winds through the entire city, entering all five boroughs and starting in heavy-hit Staten Island.
But I believe the framing of the issue also had a real effect on the public reaction. With a small, nuanced change in rhetoric, the reception may have been different.
Before the decision of whether or not to race was made, Wittenberg talked not about what the marathon could do for the city, but what it would do. It is a slight difference, but a crucial one.
"I've always said the marathon is much more than a race - and once again, it has never seemed more true than this year as was the case after 9/11. Our focus is to deliver an event that can aid in New York's recovery," Wittenberg said at a press conference. "To us, the marathon really epitomizes the spirit of New York City, the vitality, the tenacity, the determination of New Yorkers, and now, our every effort is to once again tell the world that New York City, as the mayor would say, is open for business, and we welcome the support of the world at this trying time."
Wittenberg's statement articulates many of the ideals related to how important sport can be in a trying time. However, the sense of presumption that the race would undoubtedly go on undermined her effectiveness.
In fact, the statement above would have been almost perfect had the decision to race already been made.
If she would have instead framed her argument slightly differently, the impact may have also changed. Imagine if she had instead started with something to this effect:
"Our first priority is to do what is best for the city of New York and its citizens. We believe the New York Marathon can be and is more than just a race ... but only so long as its running in no way compromises the rescue and recovery efforts."
The intent and sentiments are identical, but the framing makes all the difference.
I am writing this not to criticize Wittenberg, who has done amazing things to advance the New York Marathon and distance running more generally, but because I believe there is a lesson here for collegiate athletics.
At some point, collegiate athletics programs will face their crisis. It may be at an institutional level or at an NCAA level. It may be financial, or reputational, or tied to an unforeseen event.
But when that crisis occurs, the programs that will be most successful will be those that remember and successfully communicate the fact that at their core, they exist to serve their university and its students.
Athletic programs do have an incredible breadth of offerings that make universities better places, but they can be jeopardized in a time of crisis if programs have moved away from the fundamental notion of serving their university.
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