Last night while scanning the news, looking for election returns and a clip of Dorothy Tillman saying something polarizing, I caught a clip from the Virginia Tech memorial service. As a Roanoke native and son of a Tech graduate who saw the glory years of Bimbo Coles in person, hearing students chant “Let’s go, Hokies” moved me unlike anything else that’s come from the tragedy.

If you’re unaware, “Let’s go, Hokies” is a sports chant. What a curious thing.

A long time ago I read a quote that I haven’t been able to find since–I think it’s from Felix Frankfurter, though I may be mixing up my late Supreme Court justices. He said that the first thing he turns to in the morning paper is the sports section because, while virtually all other news is an account of human misery, the box scores and game recaps are fundamentally a record of human achievement.

This is not universally true, of course, even on the hallowed grounds of amateur college athletics. I’m sympathetic to critiques of college sports; after all, I did go to a school that was once the equal of Michigan in football before plowing under its stadium to build a library.

But I still watch the NCAA tournament every year, along with bowl games, the NBA playoffs, every Sunday of the NFL season, the Masters, and baseball as much as possible and totally indiscriminately. Anything that isn’t bowling, pretty much; my default setting in front of a television is whatever sporting event is on. My shower radio is set to sports talk, and I’m a perpetual subscriber to Sports Illustrated, ESPN Insider, and MLB radio (every game of the season on either team’s station for $15 a year–aside from a used paperback of War and Peace, you aren’t going to get much more entertainment value for your dollar). SI made me want to be a journalist, though I wimped out on sports reporting because it’s a grind and good jobs are few in number.

There’s a lot to know about and a lot of stuff I’m ignorant of in the world, so sometimes I’m not sure why I devote so much time and money for something that isn’t intended to be of value outside of its own, self-contained world. 

Then I see something like a bunch of college students in the midst of unimaginable tragedy, sounding a basketball chant during a memorial service in a hall built for the sport, and the great southern poet Nikki Giovanni (who taught the killer) declaring the school’s unity under the school’s nonsensical sports-team nickname: “We are Hokies.”

I love the name “Hokie” because it literally doesn’t mean anything, and because it doesn’t mean anything it evokes the abstraction of the endeavors it represents. That abstraction keeps sports, at heart, pure. Tragedy and corruption regularly encroach on the field, but even in those instances we can point to the abstract purity at the heart of the game and remember that humans once invented something that’s fundamentally pure. I can’t think of much in the world, if anything, where that’s the case. So we rally around it.