This story originally appeared in the September 24, 2001, issue of Sports Illustrated.
The crawl on the bottom of our screens, reserved in better days for pitching matchups, leader boards and starting times, now announced building failures, death tolls, the discovery of flight recorders. It was disorienting to see this shorthand of catastrophe so suddenly replace the familiar ticker of our SportsCentered lives. Where BONDS 3 HR once provided the comfortable minutiae, there was now a creeping ribbon of deepening disaster: MAYOR REQUESTS 6,000 BODY BAGS.
It didn't take long to make the adjustment, though, and by the time commissioners, owners and athletes had agreed to stop play--play, now there's a jarring word--for a week, it seemed so appropriate that not even a sports-talk crank could mount a credible objection. Two days after jetliners sliced through America's totems of capitalism and military might, sports simply closed down. The NFL led the way by canceling Sunday's games, and baseball, NASCAR and college football followed right behind with suspensions until Monday or later. With the exception of some high school and lower-division college sports, not one game was played. Our stadiums were quiet and dark, parking lots empty, the games just...gone.
Strangely, given our presumed dependence on the rituals of sports, nobody made a peep. There was some initial indecision, of course, until the scale of the devastation took hold. After all, we do not suffer disruption of our routines lightly. The ability to congregate each Sunday in ballparks (or at least in front of a game on TV) is one of our society's most sacred freedoms (page 60). The 1918 baseball season was abridged, but that was because of World War I. Baseball also lost a couple of games after Franklin D. Roosevelt's death in 1945. However, in 1963, in the days between John F. Kennedy's assassination and his state funeral, the NFL played on. The idea of a week without big-time sports in this country had no historical precedent.
Moreover, there was some knee-jerk patriotic puffery and chauvinistic blather to contend with before sports could officially be put to rest. You knew it by that irritating "We're New Yorkers" attitude. Still, not even New Yorkers, whose Twin Towers in lower Manhattan had been reduced to strangled steel and atmospheric concrete, stuck with that very long. This was not a blackout, not a snowstorm.
You couldn't immediately appreciate the enormity of the event, though. Who could? A day after the attack the fate of our games was still being debated (except the Tito Trinidad-Bernard Hopkins fight in Madison Square Garden, which promoter Don King almost immediately postponed, saying, "They can't blame this one on me"). Some pundits did plead for a continued schedule, the better to demonstrate the stiffness of America's spine. What more magnificent insult to terrorists than to show up in packed stadiums, which after all are the real symbols of our culture, and sound our defiance with a loud and lusty national anthem?
However, above that slow and discouraging crawl came the stories. A man who in better times might be called a corporate muckety-muck, described how, late for work, he watched his firm's floors collapse. He rushed to the scene and shook survivors to find what floors they had escaped from, but none of them had been higher than 91. About 650 colleagues had been on floors 100 and up. "I was hoping to find just one of them," he said, now crying. "Just one." Children in a lower Manhattan preschool waited and waited, into an increasingly clouded dusk, long past when any working parent should have showed up to take them home for dinner. The stories, even from a great distance, broke your heart. What's more, if that televised crawl was correct, thousands more were still to come.
So, the czars of sport quickly reconsidered: Defiance would not be measured by stadium attendance--that would seem silly, and one could imagine the terrorists chuckling over our superficial stubbornness. If our country enjoys a sometimes embarrassing bravado, getting into global barroom fights all the time, we now need to react with a sense of proportion. Bombing somebody's desert might be a popular response, or rebuilding the towers one floor higher. Sensible decisions, one hopes, will eventually be made. In any case, continuing our games didn't seem to qualify as a statement of any kind.
That was a surprise in itself, how inadequate our religion of sports was in this crisis. The games, and the people who play them, have become so much a part of our lives that we have come to believe they matter. And they do matter, of course, but not in the way we thought. It turns out that sports is no more than an extravagance of our particular civilization, a luxury earned with hard work and good luck (probably not in equal parts, either). Our absorption in them is our way of saying, We've got it made. Who else has so much time, so much money, so much freedom to be this serious about play?
When our nation is running on all cylinders, those games are a powerful statement. Other nations are divided by civil war, torn by religious disagreements, so mired in poverty, hunger and hatred that they may never make their way into the 21st century. But would you look at us! We've got it going on! Our life is so abundant, we are known by the fun we have and the team souvenirs we buy. That's us: institutionalized leisure above all else.
Sports, though, didn't turn out to be the crutch the country needed last week, and even the athletes recognized as much. We mock them for their self-absorption (which is different from our own only in degree), but in fact they reacted with the kind of exaggerated citizenship the moment required. New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde said he wouldn't play any football game last week, that it was a time to mourn. This was before the league announced a calamity bye. Other players, noting that they had neighbors missing, said the same thing and even pressed their union to demand a funereal timeout. While pro athletes tend to lack a sense of proportion, the idea of a game struck many of them as absurd.
Officials in the NFL and other leagues wrestled with this need to honor a country's grief and the need to do business, the need to entertain. Surely problems of logistics and security entered into their decisions, but who cares? They did the right thing. "At a certain point," said NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, "playing our games can contribute to the healing process. Just not at this time."
In a short while, when the all clear is given, the stadiums will again be crowded and rollicking, and our nation will be back at play. It's hard to imagine otherwise. We've done it before. Maybe we'll sit there watching the San Diego Chicken or the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders or the New York Yankees and think that it all used to be more fun, that our old passion is only a quaint artifact of a more innocent time, when we didn't have to lock our doors or worry about our skyscrapers falling down. More likely we'll get right back into it, doing the wave, gorging on Dodger Dogs, studying that televised crawl for news of another BONDS HR, flaunting our ability to enjoy the silliest things. We're pretty resilient that way.
It's going to take a few more weeks, maybe months, to absorb all those stories, to clear the rubble, to find so many dead, to organize a military response, to relocate ourselves in a geography that is newly tilted by terrorism. They may have seemed strange and defeated, those stadiums empty and quiet last week, but they had to be, no way around it. America was busy. It couldn't come out to play.