The NFL Isn’t the Answer

September 12, 2001
The NFL Isn’t the Answer
By Ric Sweeney

I won’t try to speak for any of you, or pretend I’m the least bit qualified to even try and put a shred of any of Tuesday’s events into perspective. Other writers, much more prominent than I, are scrambling to imprint their mark on this event, to define it, to burn it into our collective consciousness, and I sincerely look forward to their efforts. But I’m not delusional enough to think I can do much of anything to help any of you cope, or put any new, encouraging spin on things… but sometimes, in moments like these, you run to an outlet… and you let it all out no matter your status, or skill or depth of knowledge…

This is my outlet. This is how I feel.

What I saw Tuesday, September 11, 2001… what I felt… the images, repeatedly being hammered into my very soul… they are images I will not soon forget. As I watched the second plane crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center Building, first from that angle, then from this one… it felt surreal … U2 once sang, “When fact is fiction and TV reality…” That lyric haunted me Tuesday. My TV screen has always acted as the void between reality and fiction, sometimes, it even acted as protection from said reality, and here it was being shattered to bits by three inexplicable tragedies – I could not hide behind my TV this time. Those images broke down the fourth wall, transcended the gap. They hit me in my gut.

I had no choice but to place myself inside one of those planes… what were the passengers on board possibly thinking, knowing they were all small, but integral parts of a weapon about to be used for mass destruction, against their own country, their own people… helpless to do a single thing to stop it. What must it have been like to see the plane bearing down on your workspace, to be an eyewitness to the calculation involved, watching outside your office window as the plane righted itself to better impact the building, your building… could I even imagine the horror…? Numbing was the only word I could find that did justice to my feelings. And I’m not sure even that was appropriate.

Now, the NFL, along with other sports professions, have to try and sift through such mental debris, to determine if there’s a need to play games so closely following such a horrific event.

I hope they don’t.

Some will argue that sports are the perfect remedy for such an event, a needed respite that allows us to yell and shout and channel our stress into a singular effort, to take our minds off New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. I understand the sentiment, but don’t agree with it.

Still others, including Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden, will argue playing regularly scheduled games this weekend is a symbolic gesture of our recovery, proof that we were shaken, but not destroyed, that life as we’ve always known it will persevere, move on… triumph. That might be overstating sports’ relative importance to our everyday lives, but there’s merit in that thought, too. Still, it’s a reach.

The wound inflicted upon us all is too fresh to contemplate whatever healing power sports might possess. This weekend, sports isn’t the tonic, and while it’s likely, especially by Sunday, that I might appreciate a break from the deluge of information pouring in… I can’t imagine finding it in a sporting event.

The NFL has been down this road previously, most famously in 1963, when, two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, commissioner Pete Rozelle elected to stage games on a day set aside for national mourning. Rozelle later claimed it was his one regret as commissioner. There have been other instances, most notably during the Gulf War, when the Super Bowl presented a large and highly public national security risk. The game went on then, too, albeit under a cloud of heightened security and anxiety.

But what sets Tuesday’s tragedy apart is twofold. First, it happened to our friends and neighbors on the very soil we call home – not a deliberate act against a man and/or his policies, mind you, but a random mass murder of innocent people. Secondly, we saw it all unfold live right before our disbelieving eyes. I was just arriving to work when my wife first called with the sketchy first details. “Can you believe what happened to those planes?”

What planes?

We had a lone, black-and-white TV at the office, which we stayed glued to for most of the day. I’d watch, then call my wife, who was without a TV, and much information. I’ll likely never forget Bryant Gumble repeating, “Oh no… oh no…. ” when news of the Pentagon explosion broke. It was cold and calculated murder, and it was broadcast to each and every one of us. Those planes were more than just weapons, they were 266 lives; the Trade Center and Pentagon buildings more than just architecture, they were coworkers, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, friends and neighbors… and we saw them all perish… we watched them all die… I called friends with family in New York, they reported being unable to locate their loved ones. It was frantic, heart-wrenching. At one point, time seemed to be at a standstill. “Is it really just 10:30?”

The Giants are schedule to host the Packers this weekend; the Redskins host the Cardinals, while the Steelers are home to the Browns. How could anyone partake in a sporting event knowing just miles away, possibly hundreds of lives, hopefully more, most likely less, are hanging in the balance? I couldn’t imagine watching such a game; I shudder to think about playing in it.

Sports may yet play a role in our recovery. I know this is an especially exciting time for us in Houston, sports-wise. I have no doubt that being able to soon wrap myself back up in the Astros’ pennant race will go a long way to helping me recover on some level from Tuesday’s attacks. And I long for the day we’ll all be able to unabashedly care about a silly uniform decision by the Texans… if only that could’ve been the week’s defining moment.

I don’t know about you — again, I won’t speak on your behalf — but I know that I need the break from everyday life this weekend, to assess the situation, to possibly assist in the recovery however possible, to speak with loved ones and express relief that none were thankfully involved. I have hope that we will bounce back. I will begin to search for that hope this weekend.

The most moving moment of this entire affair, rehearsed or not, was Congress putting aside what’s been a bitter partisan battle over the past 12 months, and joining one another in singing God Bless America. Hokey? Maybe, but also cleansing and much needed. I can’t think of anything that could possibly happen this weekend in a sporting event that would do more to help rebuild whatever part of me died Tuesday… so let’s not try.

Ric Sweeney would like to send his prayers and thoughts to those directly affected by Tuesday’s tragedies. He’s worked closely with law enforcement officials the past five years, and while no life should ever be measured against another, those who risked theirs to enter the Trade Center Buildings in an ill-fated rescue attempt… words to express his gratitude and grief fail…