The sports world's reaction to last Tuesday's terrorist attacks was one of the many subplots that emerged in the drama after Sept. 11. For the better part of a week, pro sports in the U.S. essentially stopped. First, no one could fly. Then, no one wanted to play.
In Europe, major events like golf's Ryder Cup and soccer's European Champions League also vanished from the calendar. When the games did go on, they almost always included solemn moments--and tinges of the surreal. In Germany, an auto race's name was changed to the American Memorial. Iran's national soccer team observed a moment of silence before a World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain. (If the attacks had happened in Tehran, would the Dallas Cowboys have done the same?)
Iran's tribute and other observances reminded us that, even though America is often blissfully ignorant of the world beyond its borders, the world is all too aware of what happens here. If S11 served as a wake-up call to the country at large, it shone an especially stark light on the insularity of the sports world. It was a week when athletes, officials and sports journalists groped for relevance and perspective.
Usually, military metaphors infest the language of sports. We live in a state, after all, that is obsessed with a football game blithely called "The Civil War." Now we find the language of sports used to discuss the gravest questions of war: George Bush's simple (and, one fears, simplistic) vows to lead the world to Victory against a nebulous foe could have come from a Knute Rockne halftime speech.
In such a context, who might have won or lost on the playing fields last weekend seemed beside the point. No one seemed more painfully aware of that than athletes and sports officials themselves.
"This is not something that's new," said Oregon State running back Ken Simonton in a press conference, scheduled for the fateful Tuesday. "People are dying all over the world. It just happened here, so we can't hide from it now. We can't turn our shoulders and turn on an episode of Seinfeld, because it happened here."
"My day is nothing compared to what they're going through in New York," says OSU athletic director Mitch Barnhart of the cancellations and postponements that wiped out nearly every major sports event in the country last weekend, including the Beavers' home opener against Montana State. "Is it a difficult process to go through? Certainly. Is it as difficult as losing a loved one in the tragedy? No way. So my day is pretty easy compared to what they're going through."
In the midst of all the pro and college cancellations across the country, many high schools decided to let their scheduled games go on. In Portland, contests scheduled for the 11th were cancelled, but sports resumed the next day. A full slate of football games was played Friday.
"We decided it was in the best interests of kids to go on," says Lincoln High School athletic director Mark Pinder.
As with society at large, the sports world is grappling with questions about how to resume something like normal life. Where do you draw the line between sober observance and fulsome sentimentality? Between caution and paranoia? Last week, one of my most reasonable and humane friends wrote me a letter, appalled at the media's declaration that the attacks left America "forever changed." To allow terrorists to change our essential nature, he argued, would be to admit defeat. Rather, we should confront the future with clear-headed resolve.
I think he's right. He usually is. And I think that, since sports speak to ancient human needs in a way we may never fully understand, they should resume as quickly as possible.
Even so, it's tough to move on. I couldn't stomach seeing the words "Go! Fight! Win!" emblazoned across a newspaper page this week, so we've temporarily dropped this column's usual name. Of all the disruptions of the last few days, that decision may win the prize for being the most trivial. And maybe next week, we'll get back to normal. Quite apart from the tangled questions suggested by our nation's belated recognition of the hatred it inspires in some corners of the world, it seems to me that the real challenge posed on Sept. 11 was to the vigorous clamor of free and civilized life. A few dumb games might be just what we need.
WW intern Colleen McGraw contributed to this column.
The Portland Timbers A-League soccer playoff game against the Charlotte Eagles has been rescheduled for 7 pm this Thursday, Sept. 20, at PGE Park. See www.pgepark.com for ticket information.
Some unofficial Timbers websites urge fans to bring flags of the U.S. and home countries of players involved in the match. The Timbers' cosmopolitan roster includes players from the U.S., the U.K. (Michael O'Neill, Northern Ireland, and Tony McPeak, Scotland), Ireland (Keith Costigan), Canada (Jeff Clarke), Mexico (Jesus Ochoa), Trinidad (Darin Lewis and Brent Sancho), New Zealand (Gavin Wilkinson) and Kyrgyzstan (Vadim Tolstolutsky).