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Ten years after September 11, sports are bigger than ever

As we sit this week and remember the haunted, sick feelings from September 11, 2001 -- as we summon the emotions from that miserable morning in an instant, as most of us can do -- let me tell you what I was not thinking that day.

I was not thinking games played by strangers were about to become bigger than ever. I was not thinking that we would debate them much more intensely than we ever had before.

Oh, I suppose if you had told me that we were about to go through an extended stretch of misery and sports would provide an escape, I would have believed that. I would have believed that baseball fans would sing God Bless America on Sundays and teams would incorporate stars and stripes into their logos on July 4 weekend.

But never, ever, could I have envisioned the sports landscape changing the way it did.

This is about sports after 9/11. But not right after 9/11. It's not about Mike Piazza's home run in the first game at Shea Stadium or the Yankees' magical run to Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Those were great moments, and part of watching sports is that we get to enjoy so many great moments.

But since then ... I don't think sports have just been an escape from what our country has gone through. They have been a reflection of it.

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After 9/11, it was easy to wonder if sports would ever matter as much. With terrorists killing thousands of innocent Americans, who could possibly hate the Lakers? With the U.S. fighting the Taliban, who could get caught up in Alabama-Auburn?

Well, the numbers are in, and they are conclusive. Sports have gotten exponentially bigger since 9/11. Payrolls and salaries are a lot higher. Many more games are available on television, iPads and other devices that are not as cool as the iPad. If you're a sports fan and you aren't watching a game, you are probably checking scores on your phone.

Yup, spectator sports have become more popular since 9/11. On its own, this doesn't tell us much. Sports have been on a pretty steady upward rise in popularity for more than a century; they became bigger in the '80s and '90s, too, and obviously those were very different times in America.

The difference in this rise, I think, was the nature of it. Sports did not just become more popular. They became more heated and seemingly more important -- the exact opposite of what we would have anticipated on September 12, 2001.

In 2000, Alabama was paying football coach Mike Dubose $525,000 a year. Now Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban makes eight times that. (This seems particularly out of whack considering the budget crunch at major universities now compared to 10 years ago. But I suppose that might actually feed the rise in coaches' salaries -- schools feel they need to win in order to keep revenue up, so they pay coaches more.)

In 2000, the NFL draft was popular, but nowhere near as popular as it is now. I'm not just talking about the TV ratings and interest on draft weekend. I mean year-round -- people love talking about the NFL draft every single day of the year.

In September 2001, Skip Bayless had just left the Chicago Tribune in a dispute over how long his columns should be. He wanted them longer. His editors did not. ("I rarely used quotes anymore," he complained to the Chicago Reader.) Bayless would become a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News.

ESPN was about to introduce Pardon the Interruption, which would lead to Around the Horn. The network later debuted a morning talk show called Cold Pizza, which morphed into the argument-fest we now know as ESPN First Take with Bayless as the main star.

Shows are created with the sole purpose of having people disagree with each other. I don't know what ESPN's programming plans are, but I would be surprised if they're working on a show called I Guess I See Your Point. Arguing about sports has so far trumped agreeing about them.

In our hearts, we know these things don't really matter all that much. The Yankees wasted a bunch of money on A.J. Burnett. Tim Tebow may or may not be a bust. The Miami Heat shouldn't have held that silly rally when they signed those guys. So what? The planet will keep spinning.

And yet: With wars and a doomed economy hanging over us, we scream about every one of those topics. Why? What happened? There were a lot of factors -- the decline of newspaper revenue (brought on, mostly, by the decline in advertising revenue) and increasing reliance on web hits and the realization that producing studio shows is cost-efficient. I don't want to oversimplify it.

But 10 years ago, Fox News Channel had not quite become the dominant media force it is today. MSNBC had not swung all the way over to the left to counter Fox. Think of how nasty the argument over the debt ceiling got. Imagine what will happen if the 2012 election is disputed like the 2000 election.

Politics have become increasingly partisan and bitter. Political news coverage, especially on television, has become more about opinions than facts. I mean, I'm not breaking news when I say that -- we all know it. But those two trends have fed each other, and I think, on some level, they have changed the way we talk about sports.

We're used to arguing about everything now. We are used to screaming without listening. And I think when it comes to sports, we now take comfort in the bickering, knowing that in this artificial world we can argue and nobody will die because of it. With so much at stake everywhere else, we have elevated the importance of games where we have so little to lose.

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