Sports: War Games

After September 11, it wasn't long before martial terminology returned to the airwaves: There was talk once again of blitzes and bombs, of aerial assaults and ground attacks, of going on the offensive and making moves to shore up the defense at home. There was talk of heroes and warriors, of duty and sacrifice, of trying to penetrate deep into enemy territory.

I refer, of course, to the language of football, whose games were suspended for a week after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The deep linguistic and cultural connections between war and sports have been much noted over the years, and it is no great revelation to say that recent events have illuminated those connections with a startling intensity. But even leaving aside the obvious similarities of terminology, American sports and American military activity have been strikingly paired over the past several weeks.

There was, for starters, the timing of the initial air strikes on Afghanistan--just a half-hour before kickoff, Eastern Standard Time, on Sunday, October 7. In his front-page news analysis the following day, the veteran New York Times reporter R.W. Apple, Jr., wrote that when news of the strikes reached Stateside it "came on a pristine fall Sunday, 'a perfect day for football,' as the announcers like to say, just as many people were sitting down in front of their television sets for their weekly dose of gridiron glory." While the timing of the strikes made good sense in terms of both military and political tactics (the United States had needed time to muster intelligence, amass forces in the region, and pull together a multinational coalition, and it was nighttime in central Asia), is it hopelessly Chomskian to wonder if maybe the Bush administration chose the moment--kickoff, on a perfect day for football--as the most conducive for domestic public consumption? Millions of Americans were already parked in front of their TVs, testosterone pumping. And is there any more red-blooded American moment, on a weekly basis, than the swelling of anticipation between the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the kickoff at a professional football game?

Whether intended or not, the timing of the air strikes had a potent effect on fans. When the crowd of 64,000 waiting to watch the Philadelphia Eagles play the Arizona Cardinals at Veterans Stadium in Pennsylvania saw Bush's announcement of the strikes broadcasted on the big screen, they erupted in cheers. And the news wires carried reports of men watching football in bars and commenting on the retaliation: "[The Taliban] wanted to play the game, and now the score is tied," one Rhode Island man said. "It's good. We should [hit them] again."

Remarkably, or maybe not, the football games themselves were not preempted by war coverage. Bush finished his speech, the network anchors provided some additional news and commentary, and then it was back to the Colts and Patriots on CBS and the Vikings and Saints on Fox. Fans missed only a minute and 26 seconds of the latter game. (ABC did preempt its broadcast of the national soccer team's World Cup qualifying game against Jamaica, which was--on the respective sports' own terms--an indisputably more important game than any of the football contests: The soccer game would determine whether or not the United States would qualify for the 2002 World Cup. NBC, meanwhile, preempted an auto race.)

Football wasn't the only sport that found itself oddly paired with momentous world events. The weekend the U.S. began launching missiles at Kabul also happened to be the weekend Barry Bonds launched his record-setting 71st and 72nd home runs into McCovey Bay behind 3COM Park in San Francisco. This produced the incongruous sight Monday morning of the Times 's lead editorial at the top of the page--which was, naturally, "The American Offensive Begins"--balanced by an editorial at the bottom, "A Welcome Distraction," about Bonds's breaking of Mark McGwire's two-year-old record. "What Bonds has done is remarkable," the Times intoned, "an achievement to be savored and celebrated, at a time when the end-of-season rites of the American pastime seem particularly welcome and soothing."

For a while, it seemed that every time news of any significance broke, sports would one way or another insinuate themselves into the coverage, if only through the daft comments of politicians. "I can think of no better way to send a message to the terrorists," said New York Senator Chuck Schumer, than to move the Super Bowl to Giants Stadium. Actually, sports made the most news as they tried to get out of the way. By minimizing their importance ("This is a time to keep things in perspective; right now, sports just don't mean that much," dozens of athletes, coaches, and league commissioners were heard to say), sports ended up asserting their cultural prominence. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the National Collegiate Athletic Association canceled all of its Division I football games. The National Football League postponed all of its week-two games. Major-league baseball postponed six days' worth of ball games. NASCAR called off all its auto races. Golf canceled its prestigious Ryder Cup competition between Europe and America. Even the U.S. Open professional-squash tournament in Boston--an event not likely to register on even the most diehard American sports fan's radar--was bumped to January.

The canceling of the professional-football games, in particular, was carried out not quietly but with much publicized hand-wringing and an evident eye toward history. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided not to disrupt the baseball season despite America's recent entry into World War II. He declared in a letter: "I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going." When FDR died three years later during spring training, two days of exhibition games were canceled. When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968, major-league baseball postponed opening day and the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League both postponed their play-offs. Two months later, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, six baseball games were postponed.

But the example that surely loomed largest in NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's mind was November 22, 1963, the Friday when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Pete Rozelle, the NFL's commissioner at the time, had to make a quick decision about whether or not to cancel the football games scheduled for two days later. Unsure of what to do, he called his old University of San Francisco classmate Pierre Salinger, who was President Kennedy's press secretary. Salinger consulted with the Kennedy family and is reported to have told Rozelle to play because, in effect, "Jack would have wanted the games to go on." The games went on. And over the years, history has judged Rozelle's decision to be the sports equivalent, almost, of Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler at Munich: a disastrous and much-regretted error of judgment. "I'm always asked the worst decision I ever made," Rozelle himself told The New York Times in 1994, "and I always answer the Kennedy decision."

With 1963 in the background, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the football games of September 16 would be canceled or postponed; yet the NFL hemmed and hawed for several days--even as some of the New York Jets declared their refusal to play and their willingness to forfeit a game in protest rather than take the field--before calling off the games late in the week. The decision not to play inevitably became a news story in itself. Football commentators appeared with the news anchors and discussed whether suspending football was the correct choice. Newspapers published accounts of the NFL's decision-making process that were almost as detailed, in their moment-by-moment analysis, as the accounts of President Bush's whereabouts on September 11. Sports Illustrated, the country's preeminent sports magazine, published a whole special issue reporting on the absence of sports. In short, placing sports in their "proper perspective" seemed to have had, perversely, the opposite effect.

But wouldn't playing the games as scheduled have been the definition of absurdity? Almost 6,000 persons believed dead, New York's skyline suddenly bereft of its southern anchors, a nation in the grip of an unfamiliar vulnerability and fear, and a bunch of men wrestling over an oblong pigskin in the mud on national television--yes, it would have been absurd. But no more absurd, really, than most ordinary things were (like buying bread or walking the dog or having lunch) in the days after September 11--and no more absurd than it is on any other Sunday, when much of America comes home from church in time to turn on the TV and watch thick-necked, barrel-bellied monsters slam repeatedly into one another in the fight for 10 more yards.

As silly or meaningless as sports can seem in certain lights, there's no question that they can also be singularly expressive of the cultural moment. For instance, even if the timing was not intentional, the coincidence of the U.S. strikes happening in tandem with Sunday's kickoffs had powerful symbolic resonance and reinforced the deep metaphorical links between football and war. Sports and war have always been paired in their roles in forming male character. Waterloo was won, the Duke of Wellington famously remarked, on the rugby fields of Eton. Walter Camp, the father of American football, spoke of football teams as "armies," of the kicking game as "artillery work," and of coaching as "generalship." Early American football relied heavily on what we now call the "ground game" (passes were not used) and thus featured lightly armored men tussling for patches of territory in the dirt--a World War I–era form of combat, men in trenches, the Somme without the slaughter. There were hints of tactics from earlier wars as well. In 1892, Lorin Deland invented the "flying wedge"--a football play based on using mass momentum provided by advance blockers to clear the way for the tailback carrying the ball--after studying Napoleon's military campaigns.

Over the decades, the technology of football--like the technology of war--advanced; and in more recent years, the sport has taken to the air. As much as three-quarters of the territory gained in a given football game is won with "bombs" and "surgical strikes" and short passes. If you're not a football fan and this still sounds familiar, that's not surprising: You're probably thinking of Iraq and Kosovo. Indeed, until now the apotheosis of war's footballification was the Gulf War, which used the football-broadcast technologies such as Telestrators (which allow experts to draw lines on your television screen to show where a pass was caught or whether a missile went down a chimney) and instant replay (to make the strike comprehensible to the American people). And this past March--I am not making this up--the cable channel TBS even aired a television pilot called War Games, which featured an actual football broadcaster (former Oakland Raider Howie Long) commentating on actual U.S. military exercises.

President Bush himself is, somewhat notoriously, the country's First Fan. He rose to prominence in Texas as co-owner of a professional baseball team, the Texas Rangers. When asked during the 2000 presidential campaign what his biggest mistake in life was, he replied that it was letting slugger Sammy Sosa escape to Chicago. He has built a T-ball diamond on the south lawn of the White House. And on Sunday, September 9, just two days before the terrorist attacks, Bush became the first president to launch the NFL season by flipping the inaugural coin, an event broadcast live on both CBS and Fox.

While there is something almost touching about the president's wide-eyed veneration of sports figures, what is worrisome in the current context is this: Though sports can, at times, provide apt metaphors for life, they should not be someone's sole window onto the world. With Bush, you wonder. Our metaphors imply a certain way of understanding the universe. Sometimes they provide illumination or new insight. Sometimes, however, they gloss over complexity or trample important distinctions. And sometimes they betray a simple lack of understanding on the part of the speaker. I thought about this when the Times reported on September 22 that although Bush displays a newfound gravitas in public, "in private he still . . . slaps backs and uses baseball terminology, at one point promising that the terrorists were not 'going to steal home on me.'" And then I remembered what Bush said last March in Michigan, as the threat of recession loomed ever larger on the horizon: "The American economy is like a great athlete at the end of the first leg of a long, long race. Somewhat winded, but fundamentally strong."

Sports is the American idiom, so maybe the president was simply trying to put things in terms he knew that we would understand, even if his metaphors were inaccurate or distorting. But some of Bush's forays into metaphor have been downright scary in their implications--none more so than when he declared that this country was embarking on a "crusade," with the connotation of religious warfare. The president makes much of his faith and has several times--most notably with the "charitable choice" provision of his faith-based initiative--tried to elide the constitutional separation of church and state. Aside from sports figures, he has said, his biggest hero is Jesus. For all of these reasons, his "crusade" comment made secularists and civil libertarians shudder.

But it should not have surprised them, given where he's coming from. You cannot watch a football game today without seeing a running back or a wide receiver kneeling in silent prayer in the end zone, thanking God for a touchdown. Baseball players--Barry Bonds among them--circle the bases in a home-run trot with a finger pointed heavenward, indicating where gratitude (or credit) is due. There are pregame prayers in the locker room, postgame prayers--with both teams huddled together--on the 50-yard line, and spontaneous midgame prayers on the sidelines. Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell was once asked how he accounted for his team's surprising success. "Thanks be to God," he said. "There's a bunch of guys on this team who really love the Lord." It's a safe bet that half or more of the players in the NFL today would give a similar response.

And this was the norm before September 11. In the days since then, we've turned our sports stadiums--those great cathedrals of our civic religion--into giant places of worship. On September 23, 20,000 mourners gathered in Yankee Stadium in the Bronx to participate in a memorial service for the victims of the Trade Center catastrophe. (As at a ball game, of course, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was sung.) A week earlier, 20,000 people had come together in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, where the Minnesota Twins play, for an event called "the Sacred Assembly," which invited Christians to gather, heal, and pray. Even when the games resumed, religion and patriotism saturated the proceedings. Baseball fans began singing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch. Tough-talking Fox commentator Terry Bradshaw, a Hall of Famer who quarterbacked for the Pittsburgh Steelers, ended his portion of the September 23 pregame show by saying: "For all believers, I pull out this Bible. For those of you looking for an answer, read Psalm 10 to give you hope."

A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late Yale University president and professor of Renaissance literature who became major-league baseball's commissioner, once wrote that since the American people were too multifarious for a single religion to envelop, sports must serve as a "civil surrogate" for a nation "ever in quest for a covenant." After September 11, sports appear to have become our national forum for healing. Though it was carried on all the major networks, fewer people watched the national prayer service conducted at National Cathedral the Friday after the attacks than have watched pro football on each of the Sundays it's been played since.

As long as it remains a civic religion, this is a worthy and important role for sports to play. The alternatives can be far worse. According to Sports Illustrated, spectators at soccer matches in Afghanistan are not allowed to clap or cheer, and the only sanctioned expression of approval is to shout "Allahu Akbar"--God is Great. Not that Afghanis were attending many soccer matches even before September 11. The nation's largest stadium, in Kabul, is used mainly for executions.