The Meaning of Celebrity in a World of Life and Death


Craig Sager just died and I’m upset about it.

I know why, but I don’t understand why. I’m sad because he’s been a fixture in my sports-watching life, because he was a good man who suffered with dignity, and because he brought joy and encouragement to millions of other people like me who like to watch sports. But I don’t understand why a man I’ve never met, one man in a world of billions of people, can affect me with his passing.

Dylann Roof has been convicted of mass murder.

Justice. Yes it is justice for nine people with nine names most of us cannot recall. Dylann will go to prison for the rest of his life, or he will be put to death and pass from this world in the same way that the nine people he murdered passed on. One imbalanced young man indoctrinated into the lie of white supremacy will be punished after it is too late, and the system that created him will go on. Just as the cancer that ravaged Craig’s body went on. Just as the specter of this insidious disease continues to stalk humanity.

Craig and Dylann are a strange yin yang on my Twitter news feed.

2016 has insisted on taking. Around the world it has been a ceaseless wave of death and destruction, one disaster after another reducing the lives of people to tally marks on a grim scoreboard. It has taken from us some of our most beloved entertainers and public figures with alarming frequency. It has pulled American democracy and decency to the brink. It has eroded the truth and propagated the darkness.

Time and again it has presented us with the horrors of life and death, and the fragile border between the two.

Amid all of this death “out there,” 2016 has made me face mortality at the expense of my innocence. In July, two of my friends were swept off a pier into Lake Michigan by a rogue wave and drowned. In September, my little cousin and and a pilot fell from the sky and were killed in the randomness that a plane crash embodies.

It has been the year in which repetition has sharpened “Why, God, why?” into “Why, goddammit, why?”

I know, as James Baldwin said, “that a person is more important than anything else, anything else.” I believe that every human being, from Socrates to Dylann Roof, bears the image of God. And that is a sacred thing of awesome meaning, even if that God leaves so many questions unanswered, and even if that God seems so lax in protecting those fragile images from destruction.

I wonder about who lives, who dies, and who tells their story, and I’ve wondered, as I’m wondering today, how we so easily assign value to some lives over others, and why some deaths matter and some don’t. I wonder why we spotlight lives after they’ve been extinguished while casting shadows on lives that might still be saved. Sometimes it seems to be all an irreverent, profane, ignorant, and hypocritical carnival of emotional indulgence to mourn the passing of a celebrity, or to allow ourselves a few days of wallowing in grief when a personal tragedy strikes. It isn’t, but it’s easy to be cynical. Everyone dies. Everyone suffers. Couldn’t these just be meaningless distractions?

Perhaps in past days I would have said yes: Paying so much attention to Craig Sager’s death is making too much out of one person when so many other people die every day. I might say that it is our fascination with the individual that makes Dylann Roof the name that endures, rather than the names of his victims. And maybe, at the depths of my cynicism, I’d castigate us all for caring about sports so much that a man in funny suits could become so famous.

But it is not so this day. I think I’m coming to understand why we care about losing Craig, Muhammad, Phife, David, Alan, Alan again, Kimbo, Prince, and Leonard, and why it’s okay for us to care, maybe even why it’s necessary.

You’ve had a tough day. You and a million other people. Your job is difficult. Your boss is a jerk. Traffic was heavy. Your relationships are strained. Your nerves are frayed. The world doesn’t make sense. You turn on the news and everything is shit. War is shit. Politics are shit. The active destruction of the earth is shit. The cyclical spiral of history pock-marked by the randomness of catastrophe is shit. Your prayers feel cold and the holy text is full of more violence, or maybe your existential limbo is cold and your atheistic articles and vlogs are pretentious and arrogant. So you turn on the Thursday night NBA game on TNT. Your team isn’t playing, but that’s okay because they’re awful this year. Only it turns out that TNT for whatever reason is airing a game between two teams who haven’t made the playoffs in about a hundred years.

But then, at the end of the first quarter, your television set lights up with a suit jacket made from the fabric of a garish sofa. The man in the jacket is Craig Sager, who you’ve seen in a hundred times in these delightfully awful outfits, sharing insightful reporting before the games, and braving these post-quarter interviews with Gregg Popovich, and smiling as Kevin Garnett tells him that he’s finally gone too far and needs to burn his outfit.

You like Craig. He makes you smile.

But then Craig gets cancer. Because of course, why not?

And Craig loses weight and loses hair. He has to take time away from work. And you’re so happy when Craig comes back because you like Craig and he brings a sense of stability and normalcy. Even when everything else is wrong Craig is right, and he’s right even though he’s having to fight for his life against a disease that is causing him so much pain as it tries to kill him.

And then, finally, Craig dies.

And, in the wake of his death, you remember that other people like Craig, too. That’s why he was given an ESPY and why he received ovations when he returned to sideline reporting. You remember that other people love sports, and that sports bring us together, and that sports soothe the things that hurt. And so you all, together, mourn Craig’s death and celebrate his life, even if millions of other nameless people are dying of cancer.

It’s the same for people who loved listening to Tribe, Bowie, “Hallelujah,” and “I am the greatest!”

Craig is not a more valuable human being than my friends Adam and Kurt or my cousin Olivia. He isn’t even more valuable than Dylann Roof. He isn’t less valuable than Muhammad Ali or Gandhi or Joan of Arc. He had his own flaws and shortcomings, like everyone does. There are probably more talented reporters who have remained ignominious. But there are some people whose role in life is to be a public figure. To be someone who brings us joy, or who shares our pain. Someone who excites and instills, someone who soothes and consoles. Someone who brings about a sense of stability and normalcy, who reminds us that this is water.[1]

To have those people is a wonderful thing. To lose them is a terrible thing.

In a strange way, momentous death magnifies anonymous death. For in the passing of the renowned dearly departed, we gain a great appreciation for the crimson cord[2] that binds us together in this thing, making each life that much more important and the protection and cultivation of life that much more urgent.

So thank you, God, for Craig Sager.

And thank you, Craig, for being a part of my sports and for living life the way you did. I’ll miss you.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

1 HT David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address.
2 HT My brother Propaganda.