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Sports Then and Now

Sports and Politics in Buffalo: More Than a Game

Posted on June 29, 2011 by John Wingspread Howell

I’ve gradually gotten to the point that Twitter is my primary means of relating to people. My favorite use of the social medium is exchanging comments on Sabres games during games. It doesn’t matter who’s at the game and who’s in the TV room at home. We’re all sitting next to each other in the same section in the virtual arena.

Often we commiserate with each other about bad plays, missed opportunities, and foreboding signs from the tone and tenor of play by our hometown heroes. There is usually a hero, especially when the game goes well. I remember one of my “tweeps” (Twitter friends) typing “Gerbe Gerbe Gerbe Gerbe” when little Nathan Gerbe made stellar play after stellar play as the Sabres momentum toward an unlikely playoff berth started to build in one game late last season.

Buffalo is a unique town, even among small market towns. We are what we are, and because we are the butt of snow jokes and worse-than-Cleveland insinuations, our rust belt hackles get up quite easily. The upside of that syndrome is that it gives us a stronger sense of collective angst. We are David against the Goliaths of the world. We are on the side of justice on behalf of all the worlds victims and underdogs.

That being said, it was providential and perhaps inevitable that New York State’s greatest political victory for the underdog came as Buffalo sports fans, normally so obsessed with sports that we can be oblivious to the real world, were following the NHL draft and the unveiling of the Buffalo Bills new uniforms, all in one night.

I was following all three on Twitter, but as the suspense of the draft began to wane, and the uniforms were disclosed, the game on the floor of the New York Senate began to build to an overtime climax.

I was sitting in the back yard of a lesbian neighbor, at a block party, where probably half the attendees were gay, and four were gay couples.

I found that I was watching Twitter with the same sense of suspense and urgency as anyone at the gathering and in fact, I became the “announcer” for those without smart phones, keeping people updated on each newly tweeted development.

It seemed no different at all from the way I had become accustomed to following Twitter during Sabres games, and the tweets of those who were present or watching history being made on TV captured the highlights of the drama just as well as any hockey game might have been tweet-cast.

The hero of the evening, the Nathan Gerbe character, was Senator Mark Grisanti, who happens to be my state senator, a Republican and a Catholic, who beat the entrenched Democrat incumbent last November in a nail biter, overtime match of his own, finally winning by 500 votes after a re-count.

State Senator Mark Grisanti helped push the New York Gay Marriage bill into law.

We waited for news whether or not the senate would even vote on the issue. It would be up to the Republican majority to bring it up for a vote. They could have easily just let it die in committee. But majority leader Dean Skelos decided to let it come up, after passing a package of amendments that were designed to reassure religious objectors that no church organization nor clergyperson would be legally liable for refusing to accommodate a gay couple where doctrinal prohibitions were in effect.

Then the suspense built further. It was almost as if the announcement that the vote would be held was the final horn sending the game into overtime. All the speeches that followed, from senators pro and con, was the back and forth of a sudden death overtime period. The underdogs (the LGBT community) seemed to be dominating play, but it was still possible the favorites (marriage traditionalists, conservative Republicans, etc) could score a quick goal by turning the vote of someone still on the fence.

We waited through (small excerpts, tweeted of) speeches by supporters and detractors, and then the 32nd vote in favor of the message was announced. Our own Senator Grisanti was still reportedly on the fence, but a senator from downstate had gone on record as in favor. If that held, the marriage equality act would pass.

It wasn’t much longer that Mark Grisanti took to the floor. He said he was a Catholic, but he was also a lawyer and senator to all citizens, and he couldn’t, in the end, deny any citizen the rights he enjoys with his wife.

Grisanti said later, he assumed he was committing political suicide by taking that position, and that even his wife had her doubts. But that was all it took for people to start tweeting his praises, even more broadly and enthusiastically than my friend had tweeted “Gerbe, Gerbe, Gerbe” not so long ago.

“I’m campaigning for Grisanti next election,” was a common tweet. There were so many more words of thanks and praise for the senator from Buffalo, who, as it turned out, would be the 33rd vote when only 32 were needed, but somehow he was the one to get all the credit. He was one of four in the Republican majority who sided with the underdogs to get the win, but he was the Nathan Gerbe equivalent, the little guy who shouldn’t have even been in the game, who made the steal, scored the goal, brought home the cup, to the Davids of the world—yes the LGBT community of New York, but in a certain complex way, he brought a special victory to a Buffalo that has been short on victory of any kind since the Bills won the AFL Championship the last two pre-Superbowl years.

There was a victory party on Twitter which I continued to follow and report, to those now having an actual real time celebration in my lesbian neighbor’s back yard. “We’re planning a wedding, will you come?” one of them asked. There was singing, high-fiving, and imbibing of a variety of substances that I personally do not choose to swallow or inhale.

I couldn’t help but notice a tweet from someone I have known to be quite a sports fanatic. “Gay marriage is so much more important than the new Bills uniform!” He tweeted. He is also straight, by the way. And most of my tweeps are straight. A majority of them are probably under 40, many even under 30, and that is significant. They are fanatical, passionate Buffalo sports fans, Buffalo fans period. But they are also fans of the underdog, of justice, of equality—and have their priorities in the right place.

Riding to victory on my senator’s back, I think I may have just lived through the biggest victory of any kind to come to Buffalo in my lifetime and it feels really good. I have a feeling it feels at least a tiny bit better than even a Stanley Cup would feel, though I’m hoping to have the opportunity to compare those feelings sooner rather than later.

John Wingspread Howell is a novelist, freelance writer (about sports and life) and entrepreneur originally from and now back home again in Buffalo, New York.

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