When should the games go on?
WASHINGTON — In the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the world of sports walks a delicate line.
On one hand, this is a week to grieve, a time when games seem frivolous, when everyone's thoughts are buried somewhere beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center. Play ball, and you run the risk of trivializing the largest disaster in US history, what officials have called "an act of war."
On the other hand, there is a distinct sense that the games must go on, just as Congress convened Wednesday to show the world that the US government could rebound from the attack. Part of the American identity is tied to sport, and how the sports world copes reflects how society copes.
Sen. John McCain, a leading sports advocate on Capital Hill, recommended on Wednesday that the NFL resume play Sunday, "as a show of getting back to normal."
Caught in the middle, are the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and NCAA college football. Auto racing, boxing, golf, tennis, and soccer events were also affected, as were high school programs. Most decided to cancel games in the days following the Tuesday morning suicide airplane attacks, although plans for the weekend were unclear.
MLB cancelled its full slate of games Wednesday and Thursday for the first time since D-Day, June 6, 1944. Play was expected to resume today.
The NCAA, which has a weekend of top football games coming up, has left it up to individual colleges and conferences to decide whether or not they will play. So far, it seems that most of the games will go on.
"The games themselves are insignificant in the face of what has happened," said NCAA president Cedric Dempsey in a statement. "Our focus is entirely on the safety of student-athletes, athletics personnel, and fans. We urge schools to make sound decisions about proceeding with contests today and in the coming days."
In addition to efforts to properly mourn the victims, sports officials may be concerned with security risks and logistics. Travel will remain difficult, and terrorism experts have warned of second-wave attacks in places where people are densely packed together, such as a stadium.
In the past, sports leagues have come under fire for resuming play too soon during national tragedies. An NFL football game was being played between the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cardinals when the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced at half time. They finished the game.
Then, in 1963, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on a Friday, a college football game between Oklahoma and Nebraska was played the next day, to the dismay of many. The next day, on Sunday, the NFL resumed a full schedule of games.
Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner who made the decision to play, later said it was the biggest mistake of his career.
In 1968, most Major League Baseball teams played on the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was buried, despite the objections of African-American players. Later, MLB played through the funeral of Robert Kennedy.
Charles Korr, a sports historian at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has been critical of sports leagues' tendency to resume action too soon. He recommends that, following the Sept. 11 attack, each sport "make a symbolic gesture to show they understand."
For daily sports, such as baseball, he suggests that they should take at least a few days off. For a sport like football, he suggests canceling at least one week of games. To resume a normal schedule, he says, is inappropriate.
"The more important the event, the more necessary it is to cancel it," he says. Of course, canceling games will create a logistical nightmare for sports teams and leagues. Games will have to be rescheduled, money will be lost, and travel could be difficult and frightening.
Another sports historian, Robert Barnett of Marshall University, says that it may be best to continue events when possible. Doing so can have a positive, therapeutic effect, he says. "You continue with events because it demonstrates a resilience, that life goes on despite the tragedy," says Barnett.
Looking toward the future, the week's terrorist attacks are likely to force officials to ratchet up security around sports events, especially international ones. The 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, already have a $200 million security budget.
That is likely to be dwarfed in the future. "I look for the federal government to revisit the public safety plans," Ritt Romney, the head of the 2002 games, told The Associated Press. "We will be fully engaged in that process, and will make it our highest priority.