By Mike Shara

Let’s be honest – sports fans, and sports in general – could use some positive P.R.

Ask an intelligent non-sports fan about what they think of hardcore sports fans and the answers are not likely to be flattering. It’s hard to blame them. They see it on the news all the time – Tennessee football fans throwing golf balls and urine-filled water bottles at a former Head Coach ten days ago, Raptors fans cheering when Kevin Durant re-injured his Achilles during the 2019 NBA Finals, Steve Bartman fearing for his well-being and being forced to go into hiding and relocate from his beloved Chicago because he tried to catch a foul ball during the 2003 NLCS and worried about what fellow Cubs fans would do to him if they saw him. Sure, networks and news outlets are partly to blame for this – stories of bad behavior draw a lot more eyeballs than stories of everyday decency ever will, but my friends who don’t like sports don’t lack ammunition when they attack the culture of sports and the behaviors associated with it, and honestly, I’ve found it harder and harder to argue with them.

As someone who has grown up with sports as a big part of my life, I’ll admit it’s taken a growing level of cognitive dissonance to ignore the myriad of despicable news associated with sports these days. From predatory owners visiting escorts in Florida strip malls or ripping off municipalities to build their luxury stadiums or racist Head Coaches sending hate-filled emails and players charged with multiple sexual assaults, it is increasingly difficult these days to believe that the only thing that matters about sports today is money. With no justification other than big money, the sports industry has been complicit in all of us turning blind eyes to the reprehensible behaviors running rampant in every aspect of sports and it has left a bad taste in a lot of mouths, including my own. This week I found myself a sports palette cleanser. His name is Byron Kennedy.

In case you missed it, Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans caught Tom Brady’s 600th career touchdown pass this past Sunday in a game in Tampa. Not realizing that he had caught such a milestone touchdown, Evans generously gave the ball to Byron Kennedy, a lifelong Bucs fan who was watching the game from his end zone seats. Evans only realized the significance of his reception minutes later while on the bench as he revealed to teammates and coaches that he’d given the ball away to a lucky fan. However, a Buccaneers official soon approached Kennedy, explained the situation (which Kennedy admits he was not aware of until the official told him about the milestone) and asked if he would be willing to exchange the ball for some items autographed by Brady.

To his infinite credit, without even considering what the ball would be worth to him financially if he sold it on the sports memorabilia market, Kennedy immediately agreed to an exchange. He shook hands with the Bucs official, handing the ball over straight away. In an exclusive interview with Sports Gambling Guides a day later, the affable, soft-spoken Kennedy said “Tom Brady earned those 600 touchdown passes. He deserves that ball. It’s something that’s never been done before and will probably never happen again.” He adds that he now knows that the game ball may have been worth as much as $500,000 on the open market and it hasn’t made him regret his decision one iota. “People say I gave away half a million dollars, but I would have kept that ball (if they hadn’t asked for it).” While conceding that he’s not wealthy enough to ignore half a million dollars, he admitted to SGG’s Matt Lively that he’s such a Tampa Bay fan that having a ball of such significance in his possession would have meant more to him than the money. Without any grandstanding and feeling no compulsion to reveal his generosity through a series of TikToks, Kennedy instead chose to make an understated, selfless gesture – even when no one in today’s cynical sports world even remembered what that was anymore.

This is why the sports world (and maybe just the world in general) needs more Byron Kennedys. In spite of the fact that the ordinary citizen in him could have made huge profit financially, and in spite of the fact that the sports fan in him would have had every right to hold onto an incredibly meaningful piece of memorabilia, he still made the selfless act. He didn’t even hesitate. Yes, since surrendering the ball he has been given a lot of additional gifts: the Bucs organization gave him season tickets for this year and 2022 and other signed items and Brady recently said that he’d also given him a Bitcoin (valued at approximately $63,000), but the point is that he didn’t know that any of those things were coming his way and he didn’t care. He knew what the right thing to do was, and he did it quietly, immediately and unassumingly with no consideration of what he would get out of the deal.

Sports fandom is an irrational thing – most of it doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you think about it with some perspective. At best it is a romantic pursuit that almost always ends in heartbreak. Millions of fans around the world spend irrational amounts of money on tickets to the games, jerseys and hats just to self-identify as a supporter and purchase cable/internet packages to cheer their teams on without having any kind of personal relationship with anyone involved with the team. Almost none of the players on your city’s home team are from your local area, so there really isn’t a logical argument for supporting your ‘local’ team – you’re really just cheering for a particular color of jersey or helmet as a way to feel some sense of belonging. That irrational loyalty can directly lead to irrational behavior and a shocking lack of perspective from fans and these days we’re almost resigned to it. What we fell in love with about sports as young people – the camaraderie with other players, the sacrifices teammates made to help the team win and the unmatched joy of collective victory – feels like it has been replaced with cynical resignation and empty sloganeering.

On behalf of all sports fans out there, I’d like to thank Byron Kennedy – who wasn’t even playing in the game – for reminding me about all the good things sports teaches us, and for demonstrating that those values and principles still matter.

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