Why Fans Mourn the Deaths of Athletes


Last Sunday I was blown away with what I learned on Twitter. That night I read the news of St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend’s deaths. This was obviously a shock to many people: the victims’ families, friends, Taveras’s teammates, Cardinals fans, and sports fans. It impacted each person to various degrees, for sure, but a lot of people, including myself, felt some sort of grief.

Each time something unfortunate like a current (or former) athlete dies, there is pushback from some. Of course, death isn’t something anyone feels good about. But there are some out there that have the following thought: People die every day, why do we care so much about an athlete dying?

It’s an unfortunate yet real question that is asked. Some brush it off and don’t want to give that person the time of day and answer it. As for me, I figured I’d give those people a respectable, thoughtful answer.

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During my time as a Broncos fan, there have been three active members of the team that had suffered sudden deaths. Each of them had differing levels of success on the field and off the field. Each of them succumbed to different deaths. And each of them made me extremely upset.

The first time I experienced this was January 1, 2007. The day prior I was at a friend’s house watching the Broncos lose their last game of the season on an overtime field goal, effectively ending the Broncos’ playoff hopes. I was devastated. I stayed that night. The next morning I learned what the word “devastated” was actually intended for.

My neighbor, who I’ve always known to joke around, was the first one to tell me.

“Did you hear? One of the Broncos was shot and killed last night,” he said. At first, I laughed it off, thinking he was just messing with me, even though that’s a bit out of line for a joke. He reiterated his statement. I still didn’t fully believe him, but the possibility of this being real started to get to me.

I got home and saw that what my neighbor had told me was true. Cornerback – how I identified with him – Darrent Williams was killed earlier that morning.

It wasn’t anything like I’ve ever experienced. I’ve had family members pass before, but it wasn’t anything like the complete and utter sadness I felt then. This was a bit different. I didn’t know this person on a personal level, yet I felt horrible.

The same kind of feeling happened when Broncos running back – again, how I identified with him – Damien Nash collapsed and died that April after a charity basketball game. He rushed the ball for the Broncos a mere 18 times in his career. That didn’t stop me from dedicating some of my time to thinking about his family and praying/hoping they had shoulders to lean on.

The same was true in September of 2010 when, two games into the NFL season, wide receiver Kenny McKinley died from an apparent suicide. I learned about his passing right when I was about to go to school. After I found out, I didn’t feel like going.

After all of these players’ deaths, I just felt numb. I didn’t know what to do. They weren’t people I’ve ever hung out with, met in person, or even talked to. But each death left some sort of empty feeling inside. It almost felt like I lost a person in my own life, even thought that wasn’t necessarily true. And of course, some of my attention was also on the people that each of their deaths directly effected.

Three young Broncos, within a four year span, each not a day older than 25, had lost their lives.

The effect that all of these players had on me wasn’t quantifiable from a physical perspective. I think this fact is why questions are raised about why we as fans care so much when a player on our team or in a sport passes away. In most cases, we’ve never even met these people.

Sep 14, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos huddle before the start of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I know for me, even if I knew someone for just a day and I learned of their passing, I would be struck with some sort of grief. It’s just surreal to see someone in person, no matter how long, or on TV, no matter how many times and one day they’re no longer with us. A lot of us root for our team and its players like they’re part of our family. In the NFL, we welcome them into our homes on our TV’s. They become part of who we are, even if that’s not mutually the case.

These players, including Taveras, all had some sort of impact on my life. They didn’t have a direct impact on my life by way of shaking hands with, talking to, or befriending me, but they each made me enjoy being present on earth when I watched them play.

As for my fan connection with Taveras: I used to play in a very deep fantasy baseball dynasty league that included minor league players. This forced me to read up and learn about up-and-coming players in different MLB farm systems. Taveras was consistently a name at the top and I tried trading for him on multiple occasions. But I could never land him; he was too good. I also remember watching MLB Network and watching the highlight of him getting his first hit, a home run in the rain versus the Giants.

Even though that’s how I connect with Oscar Taveras, that doesn’t make it insignificant. It’s not asking for pity, it’s just showing how many people he’s been able to impact, even if it was just me reading his name on a screen or watching him hit a homer in the playoffs.

While fans grieving over a player dying may seem trivial – it certainly may be when compared to their family and friends’ grieving – it isn’t in the grand scheme of things.

o if you ever feel confused as to why fans act like players made an impact on their lives, it’s because they have, even if it’s just a little bit.

Rest in peace, Oscar Taveras.