Monday 19 August 2019

John Greene: How sport can beat bullies and build public spirit

Richard Johnson is now the curator for the New England Sports Museum in Boston
Richard Johnson is now the curator for the New England Sports Museum in Boston

John Greene

Richard Johnson's only visit to Ireland was in 1977. One day, with his Irish-American girlfriend Mary Hamilton, he was hitching a lift outside Galway, hoping to make it to Cork. Thinking about that now it seems a tall order, but eventually they were picked up by a man who was heading some, but not all, of their way. He was a doctor who trained in Massachusetts, and so he was immediately drawn to his two passengers' accents.

Where in Massachusetts did you train? asked Richard.

St Vincent's Hospital, in Worcester.

That was Johnson's home town.

The driver continued, fondly ­recalling one particular doctor he trained under while in Worcester. His name was Dr Robert ­Johnson, who had been a huge influence on him and his career.

Dr Robert Johnson, laughed Richard incredulously, was my father.

The driver went all the way to Cork with Richard and Mary. And the three spent a memorable evening ­together, swapping stories about St ­Vincent's, Worcester and Dr Johnson, until he finally took his leave of the young couple.

Richard and Mary both spent that summer in Ireland working and travelling and they married when they went back to the US. Next month they will spend three days in Dublin. It's a hurried visit, as part of a trip to Europe to visit their daughter, and it's a regret that they won't get to spend more time in the country where they met.

One place which is very close to the top of the list of places they plan to visit is Croke Park and the GAA Museum.

Richard Johnson's memory of his visit to the stadium is vivid, even though he has been in a lot of stadia on both sides of the Atlantic in the 38 years since he last sat in Croke Park's old wooden seats. The occasion was the All-Ireland semi-final between Roscommon and Armagh, the drawn game. What are the first three words that come to mind when he closes his eyes and think about that day?




And the poverty . . . he remembers the poverty everywhere. That picture stayed strong within him too.

He wonders if Armagh ever made it?

Yes, they did, in 2002.

Good, he replies.

Johnson is now the curator of the New England Sports Museum in Boston. He's also a sports historian and an author who has written, or co-written, 23 books. That's why a return to Croke Park appeals so much. He has seen how it looks on television now, how it has changed beyond all recognition. He has also heard a lot about the museum, and sports museums are really his thing, have been for over 30 years.

The New England Sports Museum is based in the TD Garden, home to the Boston Bruins and the Boston Celtics. The museum is an incredible and inspiring chronicle of a sports-mad city and a sports-mad state. The Garden's corridors are the museum; you can wander around on different floors, study the multitude of exhibits and absorb the city's passion for sport. Doug Flutie and the Hail Mary touchdown; the Patriots in the Tom Brady era; the Red Sox; the Celtics; the Stanley Cup; the 1994 World Cup . . .

Johnson, and the museum's executive director, Rusty Sullivan, know they are involved in something special. Boston is to sport what Paris is to art, says Johnson. Their enthusiasm is beyond infectious. They have tapped into their vast archive - and more importantly into the power sport has to influence people in a positive way - to help make it an instrument of public good. This has led to initiatives such as Stand Strong and Boston Versus Bullies. Stand Strong targets at-risk children in Boston's inner city, Boston Versus Bullies is state-wide.

"We have found a way to take the platform of Boston sports, and the power and platform of Boston sports, and use that as a launching pad to build and deliver a series of educational programmes to kids throughout our community," says Sullivan. "So it's really a matter of using Boston sport as the hook to engage kids around important issues such as anti-bullying, character education, building lifelong virtues . . . all the intangible things that we all love about sport: the determination, the team work, the courage, the fairness. We're using our platform to build programmes that instil those values in kids."

Boston Versus Bullies is fronted by local sporting stars who deliver various anti-bullying options kids can use when caught up in bullying situations.

Schools in Massachusetts are required by law to have an anti-bullying curriculum. "So these kids, the fifth, sixth and seventh graders, upper elementary and middle school, ages 11 to 14, they know a lot about bullying already," adds Sullivan. "After they experience our programme they know even more because it is such a powerful supplement. Whereas other programmes have gotten through to them somewhat, I think we come in and fill all the gaps.

"There's a lot of great anti-bullying programmes in Massachusetts and America, as I'm sure there are in Ireland, and we are just delivering the same message and the same content, but we're using sports as a vehicle."

And all the time the question lingers: Why can't we do the same?

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