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Flap over Mets' hats a window into how sports mark 9/11 tragedy

Bud Selig could feed the homeless and find a way to get hammered for it. He could fly medical supplies to a third-world country and environmental groups would rip him for taking a private plane. Selig has some of the worst p.r. instincts of anybody in sports, so it is not surprising that, faced with a six-inch putt on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he kicked the ball.

The New York Mets wanted to wear their first-responder hats for their nationally televised game Sunday night -- the ones that have NYPD and FDNY written on them -- and Selig's office said no. The Mets, like everybody else, had to wear special On Field 9-11 Patch Caps with an American flag on the side, which are available for $36.99 on the MLB website, with a portion of the proceeds going to 9/11 related charities like the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the Flight 93 Memorial and the Pentagon Memorial. There are conflicting reports on whether MLB threatened to fine the Mets if they wore the first-responder hats during the game. But since the Mets can barely afford to pay a parking ticket these days, even the unspoken threat of a fine might have scared them.

The response was typical of Major League Baseball in the Selig era. It showed a tin ear for public relations. The decision wasn't wrong as much as it was utterly stupid. I think it is fair to say that, if the Mets had been allowed to wear those first responder hats, NOBODY would have complained. The hats become part of the American cultural fabric in the weeks after 9/11, largely because we saw them on baseball fields in New York.

This story has since followed a predictable cycle: The Mets grumbled, the public got mad, and Selig's office has only made the situation worse by continually defending itself. Selig can't win here. Nobody wants to hear about any "league-wide policy" or "guidelines" on 9/11. People want to feel, and this decision just seemed so unfeeling.

But it also provides a window into how we choose to memorialize 9/11. If we can agree that nobody would have complained, then we are saying that nobody would have considered the move crass or thought the Mets were trying to capitalize on the 9/11 anniversary to curry favor with their fans. I understand that -- I absolutely think the Mets should have been allowed to wear the hats.

But many of these tributes are not just public, they are overtly corporate. Under Armour unveiled red, white and blue FDNY football cleats this week. Reebok had stars-and-stripe themed cleats with NEVER on the left shoe and FORGET on the right.

They may be patriotic and heartfelt and spiritually uplifting for many people. But they are certainly not solemn. They are not something most of us would wear to a funeral, wake or memorial service, to pay tribute to the deceased. And to be very blunt about it, they made me uncomfortable. Not quite in the way that this made me uncomfortable. But I was still uncomfortable.

Reebok probably thought it was brilliant to weave the phrase "NEVER FORGET" into its cleats. We have heard that so many times over the last 10 years, and seen it on so many bumper stickers and special newspaper pullout sections and websites, that it has become one of those standard American phrases that goes unquestioned. Happy 4th of July. God Bless America. Never forget.

But at least to me, there are two very different meanings to that phrase. There is, of course, "Never forget the victims or the horrors of that day." But there is also "Never forget we were attacked," which has a more vengeful tone; it implies that we cannot move on until we get payback. Everybody is entitled to their own interpretation, and I'm not going to get into what I think is right or wrong. (At least, not today.) But when you wear a stars-and-stripes cleat with "NEVER FORGET" written on it, at least partly because you have a contractual relationship with the shoe manufacturer ... well, that doesn't strike me as an homage to the lives that were lost on 9/11.

But clearly, I am in the minority. America loves this stuff. In the last 10 years, though, we have wrapped our arms around the notion that sports are the center of the American way of life, the cultural heartbeat of our country. We think nothing of baseball teams adding "God Bless America" to the seventh-inning stretch or wearing American-flag themed hats on July 4th weekend.

We consider Major League Baseball and the NFL to be such integral parts of America that the games themselves seem fundamentally patriotic. Ten years ago, I might have thought these leagues tied themselves too closely to the emotions of 9/11. As Bud Selig just found out, America has decided that is impossible.

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