A New Take On Sports

The Arizona Diamondbacks celebrate their 3-2 win over the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series Sunday, Nov. 4, 2001, at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix.
A few minutes after a tough loss ended his football team's national title hopes, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley walked to his office and looked at a picture on his desk.

In the frame is a scene of a happy family, before Sept. 11. The father in the picture died in the World Trade Center attacks.

"I looked at that and thought, 'What's more serious?'" Foley said. "Sept. 11 put a lot of things in perspective."

Indeed. Almost every sporting event in the country and many worldwide were canceled for at least a week.

Yet the hand wringing about sports at a time of national crisis - How would the NFL respond? What would major league baseball do? - was a sure sign of their significance and the important role they would play in the country's recovery.

When President Bush called on Americans to go about their daily lives, the return to sports was a big part of it. Suddenly, these were more than games. They were a rallying point, a sign that America was undaunted.

"Sports not only came back, but they came back in the glow of patriotism," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. "There was the idea that you could be there, parked on the couch, or in the stadium, drinking a beer, and actually feel like you were flying the flag while you were doing it."

The experience of playing a game, going to a stadium, or even just watching on TV, all changed.

For one, "God Bless America" is played more. And college football players come onto the field for the national anthem, a ritual that sadly, and almost without notice, seeped out of the game over the years.

For a while, American flags covered football fields from end zone to end zone in pre-game ceremonies while fans cheered for the real heroes: police officers, firefighters and rescue workers.

To start their season, NBA players from opposite teams stood in pre-game prayer circles and listened to Bush exhort them via videotape to play their games with gusto.

Around New York and Washington, every lesson learned was doubly poignant.

The New York Jets and Giants returned to their field within sight of the smoke from the destroyed World Trade Center, knowing it wasn't just about football anymore.

"I know I can help heal some people," Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde said in the days following the attacks on the twin towers and Pentagon. "Even if for a little while, to give them some enjoyment from watching us play football and to entertain them. That's what motivates me."

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani not only became "The Mayor of America," he became America's No. 1 sports fan -- well, maybe No. 2 behind Bush.

An ardent Yankees fan, Giuliani followed the World Series with his usual passion. The scenes of him wearing his "FDNY" cap and walking arm-in-arm to the pitcher's mound with manager Joe Torre after a big win got extra air time, and took on extra meaning.

"All of us felt something different," golfer Tiger Woods said. "W all had to continue on, but we had to feel a little more leery when you traveled or when you went someplace. The remembrance of that day, it was a shock to the whole system."

Since Sept. 11, bag checks and heightened security have become the norm at sporting events. Fans still are going to the games, but they no longer ignore, or fail to notice, planes flying overhead.

The lexicon of sports has changed, too.

Teams no longer "survive" to stay in the playoff race. Sports writers no longer casually toss around the word "hero" to describe a football player who scores the game-winning touchdown.

"The whole notion of a sports hero is going to take a long time to come back,'' Thompson said.

As fall turned to winter, the football season picked up steam and the games and issues that surround them seemed almost as important as ever.

Listen to a sports radio show these days: On them, college football and the national championship debate are again being afforded the importance of a presidential election.

In mid-December, Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel's racially tinged comments to a fan and bottle-throwing Cleveland Browns fans made big headlines. Sports are infiltrating the news pages again, not vice versa.

Despite this apparent slow return to routine, some things will never be the same. The post-attacks catch phrase "new normalcy" applies to sports, too.

Security at the Super Bowl will be handled by the Secret Service.

The Salt Lake City Olympics will spend $300 million on security - at least $35 million of which was added to the budget after the attacks - to try to ensure safety at an event with a history of terrorist violence.

With terrorism still a threat, there will be other questions, stops and starts, and philosophical debates over whether sports should play such a prominent role in society.

For Foley, sports will always be in perspective; they are games people play. He's reminded every time he looks at that photograph of a fellow alum from Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y. He cut it out of a magazine published by the school.

"To many of us, this stuff is very important, and to some of us, it's our livelihood," Foley said. "But these are sports. What we saw Sept. 11 - that was life and death.''

By Eddie Pells
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