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How NFL has become intricately connected to remembering the events of 9/11

If there's one place where you can go for customary (cliche?) displays of patriotism, go to an NFL game. The league took ownership of the ongoing cultural response to the events of 9/11, and 15 years later, it still has not given up possession.

Not long before Sunday’s end, Chandler Catanzaro, a placekicker currently employed by the Arizona Cardinals, pulled a 47-yard field goal attempt to the left, and gifted the New England Patriots with a 23–21 upset victory. The snap was low and the holder did well to even get the ball upright at all, but by then the timing had all gone to hell and Catanzaro’s kick spun outside the left upright and, not long after that, one more time, for another year, September 11 turned into September 12.

The 15th anniversary of the attacks of that day was honored with the NFL’s unique brand of commodified martial mourning all over the league, but it was particularly fraught for the two teams that closed out the first Sunday of regular season play.  After all, it was in the wounded autumn of 2001 that New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe was freight-trained by Mo Lewis of the Jets, forcing the Patriots to bring on an obscure sixth-round draft pick from Michigan named Tom Brady, and it was in the Super Bowl ending that season—the Super Bowl that featured a halftime in which the names of all the victims of the attacks scrolled upwards inside the Superdome as U2 keened away beneath them like shawlies at a wake—that Brady and Bill Belichick first began to cement their remarkable 21st-century legacy, and after which New England owner Bob Kraft caterwauled, “We’re all Patriots now.”

For the Arizona Cardinals, their connection to the events of September 11, 2001 really began sometime after September 12, 2001. As much as the Patriots were a part of the unity that arose in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Cardinals have come to symbolize the tragically ambiguous legacy of the use to which that feeling of unity was put. In 2002, an Arizona safety named Pat Tillman walked away from his substantial NFL contract and became an Army Ranger. A little more than two years later, he was killed in Sperah, a village in Afghanistan not far from the Pakistani border.

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There was great mourning over Tillman’s sacrifice and it was not until a while later that we learned that Tillman—who’d always been a questing, curious soul, who’d read Noam Chomsky and who’d bitterly opposed the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq—had been killed by friendly fire. We also learned that the Army had lied to the country, and to Tillman’s family, about the circumstances surrounding his death. His fellow soldiers were ordered to lie. They burned his uniform and his journal. They lied to the Tillman family. Now, 15 years later, if you squint downrange at history the right way, a game between the New England Patriots and the Arizona Cardinals on September 11 can look very much like a telescoped version of what’s happened to the country over the past decade and a half.

It is a strange anniversary every year. As nearly as can be told, the country didn’t enfold itself in grief on December 7, 1956, on the 15th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor—but, then again, in 1956, we didn’t have almost limitless cable television, a 24-hour news cycle, and instant commiseration and insta-grief via content produced across many platforms. And no institutions in our society have the kind of grip on all three of these factors tighter than the one enjoyed by the institutions of our sports-entertainment complex. They attached themselves to the events on September 11, 2001 almost immediately. They became primary mediators of the national mood. They took upon themselves the role of national grief counselors. They made a little money along the way doing it.

Though the attacks took place at the beginning of what is commonly thought of as football season, it was baseball in which this dynamic first took root during the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees. Because of the attacks, the Series was delayed and ultimately became the first World Series ever decided in November. Every game in New York was a passion play. The Diamondbacks visited Ground Zero prior to Game Three, in which President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch to wild acclaim. In Game Four, New York’s Scott Brosius tied the game with a late home run that seemed to crack the skies. Arizona ended up winning the Series in seven games.

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Meanwhile, in the NFL, the second week’s games were canceled; then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue was determined not to make the catastrophic mistake that the late Pete Rozelle had made in 1963, when the league played its full schedule on the weekend they buried John Kennedy. Because no enterprise does anything—including grief—bigger and louder than the NFL does, the blare of its constant tributes drowned out the memories of the World Series in New York very quickly. By the time the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots were ready to kick off in the Super Bowl, the NFL owned the ongoing cultural response of the events of the previous September, and it has not given up possession of them since.

The NFL has militarized its weekly spectacles beyond even its own fathomless capacity for mythologizing itself. It has done so by fair means and by foul; the revelation that the Pentagon was paying various franchises to “honor our troops” raised holy hell in Congress and left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. The Super Bowl is now something that Leni Riefenstahl would have produced had she been born here and gone on to a career in advertising. The flags are getting bigger every year. The flyovers are noisier. The distinction between an NFL team and a regiment is becoming blurred in the public mind, and that’s just the way the NFL wants it. After all, what better way to obscure the crisis of authority that permeates almost every level of the league these days than to cover it with a flag the size of the Caspian Sea?

Now, though, over the past weekend, the annual pageant of loss and permanent marketable sorrow took place again, but sharper this time because it was a year ending in a six, and anniversaries become sharper when they take place on what can be called calendar base-5. But it is a different country now than it was. The wars have ground on and on, with no end in sight. The use of the 9/11 attacks to enable a longed-for invasion of Iraq has soured the national mood. The customary patriotic displays during the games themselves have become ritualized clichés that can’t even keep people away from the beer stands during the lulls in play that they occasion. People are more attentive during the playing of the National Anthem, but that’s because Colin Kaepernick and other athletes are taking the opportunity to protest the killing of young African Americans by the nation’s police. The voice of protest and the voice of frat-kegger Americanism hardly ever harmonize well; the former is too authentic and the latter is too mechanized, AutoTune devotion to the symbols of democracy and not its spirit. Skepticism of the easy answers is back in vogue, at least for a while. Toby Keith is off the charts. The spirit of Pat Tillman—the real Pat Tillman, the heroic, disillusioned skeptic whom his government tried to bury—is back again, fighting for space in the nation’s conversation with itself.

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It is difficult to know where we all will be on this kind of thing in 2021, when the base-5 cycle comes around to the 20th anniversary. Surely, there will be content thrown across new platforms that have not been invented yet, because throwing content across platforms is what we do now instead of, you know, writing, or even talking amongst ourselves. Surely, it will not differ overmuch from the content that was thrown across platforms over the past weekend. The only difference will be in how the commodified, petrified grief of that awful day will be received as we move five more years distant from the events themselves.

One thing is not likely to change and that is that the National Football League is going to be the place to go to hear marching band music and fireworks and jet airplanes drown out whatever new questions may have arisen over the previous five years. The historically fraught nature of having the first week of the season end with a game between the New England Patriots and the Arizona Cardinals went fairly well unmentioned on Sunday night; there was a brief mention of Pat Tillman, and even an acknowledgement that he’d been killed by other Americans, but no acknowledgement of the full person and of the ambiguity at the heart of the past 15 years that Pat Tillman truly symbolized. In 2021, this likely will not change. In many ways, including the literal, the NFL has become our most brutish delivery system for amnesia. That is its role, and it plays it very well.