I'm sorry, but with respect I believe that if travel and security issues could have been resolved, it was Wrong of the sports establishment to cancel games last week. To be sure, the decision was well-intentioned, but we would have been better served by the opportunity—the choice—to join with neighbors at a stadium to escape our sadness for a moment, our breathless disbelief.
To attend a game at such a time would not be callous. To watch a game on television would not mean that we care less for those who have died and those who have lost loved ones. We would still grieve. We would still be brokenhearted. However, we are human beings, always contradictory in our emotions. We should not be ashamed to be transported briefly from our sorrow and from this mad encounter with evil.
The fact is, this is a land of diversity, and just as we celebrate in different ways and worship in different ways, so too do we mourn in different ways. Moreover, in most of our religions customs for dealing with death have developed primarily to help us, the ones left behind, to cope with our loss. So we have our funeral gatherings: We eat and drink, smile, even laugh, coming together to comfort one another as, in better days, we share the same fellowship to express our joy. In times of widespread grief such as these, a sporting event can provide the same kind of catharsis. A game can serve a larger community as a wake does family and friends.
We also should have been more careful not to let our personal sorrow subvert a larger purpose. When Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972, many Americans responded as they did last week, demanding that the Games be canceled. But many Israelis—including some bereaved relatives of the dead athletes—were adamant in wanting the Olympics to proceed. Shut them down and you grant the terrorists one more victory. That same reality obtains here and now. We Americans are new to this kind of horror. We might better listen to those who have suffered closer and longer with the enemy.
In this country, though, people in sports—athletes, executives, journalists—always feel at least a little guilty that we devote our lives to fun and games. I think that self-consciousness influenced many of us last week. Here was our chance to humbly declare that we understood how really insignificant sports are in relationship to what is always called "the real world." Actors, who are no less sensitive or privileged than athletes, have a better grasp of context: The theater knew its place and kept its obligation. Broadway reopened last Thursday. The show must go on. Laughter is the best medicine.
So too last week you could go to a movie, rent an Adam Sandler video, sing along with MTV, visit a topless bar, eat at a restaurant, gamble in a casino, play sports—do just about everything, as always, except watch sports. In the end, by denying us spectator sports, the very people who were trying so hard to argue that sports weren't necessary puffed them up and made them seem more significant. Ultimately there was a hint of the moral sentinel in the bigwigs, telling us that they knew what's good for us, that they feared that sport is such a seductive drug that they couldn't trust Americans to sniff it, lest we stopped caring about the real world.
Then the players—especially those in the NFL—called for special dispensation. Whereas every other suffering American, from the President to Broadway actors to Manhattan cops to airplane pilots and flight attendants, had to go on working, pro football players felt they had the right to boycott their jobs. In their lugubrious self-absorption, they might for a moment have heeded St. Francis: "Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console."
Sports, you see, really do matter. No, not the games themselves, not even the players—but the harmonizing effect of sports upon our society. Former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti (who was Bud Selig's great friend) wrote, "Because no single formal religion can embrace a people who hold so many faiths, including no particular formal faith at all, sports and politics are the civil surrogates...for [an America] ever in quest for a covenant." A stadium is crucial for a democratic society because it's where all classes and types of people come together, to mix and share in a common public space. Calling off the games denied us the opportunity for that precious and comforting assembly.
The Star-Spangled Banner is occasionally derided (most recently here in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED) for being too martial. America the Beautiful, with its honeyed pastoral images of idyllic farmland, is sometimes rated a more appropriate national anthem. However, it wasn't war that Francis Scott Key cheered. Rather it was the stirring image of the broad stripes and bright stars, "still gallantly streaming" despite glaring rockets and bursting bombs.
In times of sorrow and fear, the chance for Americans to gather in any huge stadium, to stand together, bound together, a provides powerful—even patriotic—nectar. To look around at friends and strangers, Americans all, is to draw strength and find resolve; it is to catch a glimpse, in that congregation, of happier times and a brighter America ahead. Only a stadium offers that potential for vision. In a way we all, in the great crowd, form an American flag, a people proudly hailing for the world to see.