Thursday, May 5, 2011

Reflecting on the week, and the sports element in healing

It has been a while since I checked in for a number of reasons. A lot on my plate would be one, Osama bin Laden would be the other. I simply didn’t want to write a jock blog so soon after his death on Sunday. Only one thing matters: he’s dead and, for once, there isn’t a single American who doesn’t feel exactly the same way about a political/military event. I know what my response was: Thank God we finally got him.

Thinking more about Bin Laden and 9-11 though I realized there is a sports element to his death. For many, many Americans, sports played a major role in our healing after that horrific day. When the games began again, they gave us a place to go—not just physically but mentally and emotionally—an escape from the reality that was still there on our TV screens every day as the grim search for bodies continued and ground zero continued to smolder.

I still remember the chills I got when the New York Yankees were cheered in Chicago; when fans everywhere the Navy football team traveled that fall cheered the Midshipmen from the minute they got off the bus until the bus pulled away at the end of a game. I remember President Bush tossing the coin at Army-Navy that year on a cold, bright December day and a future marine named Ed Malinowski calling out for everyone to hear: “Head’s SIR!” while the coin was in the air and a chill ran through the entire stadium.

It was a tragic but remarkable fall. A friend of mine who worked for The Secret Service and worked on a task force with the FBI and the local police in Washington in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 told me that incidents of road rage dropped almost to zero. Democrats and Republicans stopped attacking one another. There seemed to be a recognition in all worlds that the ‘enemy,’ didn’t wear an opponent’s uniform or vote differently than you. We had seen the real enemy all too clearly.

Of course it didn’t last—that’s human nature. A new normal settled in to our lives, complete with long airport lines (and me all but giving up flying) and lengthy security checks at most sporting events. Metal detectors became a familiar part of our lives in jock world. No one complained because, as much as we hated the fact that there was no choice, there was no choice.

Fast-forward 10 years and there’s no doubt all of us will remember where we were when we heard the news that bin Laden was dead. I was getting ready to go to bed when my son called me from his room down the hall. Usually at that hour it’s to ask me to close his door because he doesn’t want the cats to wake him by jumping on his bed after he’s gone to sleep. This time was different.

“They got bin Laden,” he said. “They killed him.”

I was stunned. Like a lot of people I think I had gotten to the point where I just figured he had too many people—and governments—protecting him for us to ever get him. Happily, I was wrong.

The fact that it was Navy Seals who got him wasn’t surprising. There is no group more elite in the world. I’ve had the chance to know a number of football players who have gone on to become Seals and, to say you have to be special is a vast understatement. The best description I ever heard of Seals came from Doug Pavek, an Army football player who went on to become an Army Ranger—another elite group.

“They do everything that we do,” Pavek said. “Except they do most of it underwater.”

Or in helicopters or on the ground or wherever they are most needed. The shots of the celebrating at the Naval Academy that night were chill-worthy and brought me back again to 2001 when I stood on an almost silent practice field and watched the players try to prepare to play Boston College 10 days after the towers came down. There was no chatter that day; no fake cheerleading. It was still too soon for any of that.

Now when the 10th anniversary of 9-11 is commemorated—I’m amazed at how often I read each year that people are, ‘celebrating the anniversary,’—we can mix our silence and our grief with cheers for those who hunted the man behind the murders down.

I do wonder this: the first Sunday of the upcoming NFL season falls on 9-11. Would it not behoove Roger Goodell and the owners, who are the ones who started this labor battle and appear ready to go to the mat in search of a legal victory, to find a way to make sure stadiums are full on that day and that football is played?

Is it entirely out of line to suggest that the NFL—which does more flag-waving and playing on patriotic themes than almost anyone in sports or outside of sports—should declare a moratorium on the lockout and work under the old CBA for this season while still trying to negotiate a new deal going forward?

I’m sure Goodell and his lawyers will give all sorts of legal reasons why that can’t be done but there are certainly instances of employees continuing to work with a collective bargaining agreement in place. Surely, legal language could be worked out to allow the games and the negotiations to go on at the same time. Aren’t there moments in life when—especially when you are rich beyond all reasonable expectations—that you STOP playing hardball for a little while and simply do the right thing?

That may be an extraordinarily naïve notion but it was once naïve to think the Yankees could get cheered on the road or that getting players and coaches to come out of their locker rooms for the national anthem would ever be possible again. Sometimes what seems naïve is just the right thing to do. I think this is one of those times.


On far more mundane topics: I cannot believe that the Washington Capitals completely flamed out in the playoffs AGAIN. The 4-0 sweep at the hands of Tampa Bay was embarrassing. I can’t help but note that the goalie who beat the Caps, Dwayne Roloson, is someone I suggested they trade for back in December. I was pilloried by many fans and my colleague at The Washington Post, Tracee Hamilton, for even suggesting a veteran goalie on hand might be a good idea.

Roloson was traded by the Islanders soon after that to the Lightning for a middling prospect. I’m not saying goaltending was the reason for the Caps demise—Michal Neuvirth played well though not brilliantly—but having Roloson in the room as a calming influence, whether he was playing or not, would have helped. And, he would NOT have been playing for the Lightning…

You have to feel a little bit sorry for The PGA Tour. It tries SO hard to convince people that The Players Championship is a really big deal; spends huge money to promote it and on prize money and what does it get? No Lee Westwood; no Rory McIlroy and, in all likelihood, no Tiger Woods who I suspect is still going to be taking care of his injured knee next week. For the record, if I’d had four knee surgeries I would be ultra-cautious too. But let me also say this for those of you who monitor this blog strictly for Tiger-shots: If he was supposed to play for a $3 million appearance fee this week, I suspect he’d find a way to play. (insert, ‘Feinstein, you suck,’ posts here).

And finally on the subject of those of you who hate me so much you can’t stop reading this blog: A friend pointed out during the NFL draft a couple of posts from last fall demanding I ‘apologize,’ to Mike Shanahan for ripping him for the handling of the Donovan McNabb benching (NOT, you Rick Reilly fans, for the benching but for the way he handled the benching) because McNabb’s ‘new contract’ proved that Shanahan had nothing personal against McNabb. How’s that turning out? You expecting to see McNabb under center if/when the NFL season begins? Or do you think the ‘contract’ with almost zero in guaranteed money, but a signing bonus, wasn’t hush money?


Anonymous said...

Great post re 9/11.

And as for the NFL: from your lips to Goodell's ears.

Anonymous said...

If not a jock blog, you could have at least loudly complained about the airlines mistreating your luggage in the immediate aftermath like Wilbon did.

ruffin said...

I've been saying since the details to the contract become public that McNabb gave the Skins a second, free franchise tag. No idea why he did them the favor, minus the proverbial three million reasons or what have you.

But is your freedom to chose your next team worth $3 mil? In a sense, having the Skins looking to get *something* for McNabb actually has them in a position where they have to market him a bit. He can't be a simple cast-off. The Skins have to at least bluff that he's still got value. $3 mil plus free marketing for your next gig really isn't so bad after all, is it?

johnny monopoly said...

I'm glad that your busy, but there are some of us who really look forward to your perspective on a daily basis.....I got more goose bumps reading this blog then I did watching the news....thank you

Anonymous said...

Ok, this is off topic for this post, but is there any truth to the rumor that Gary Williams is going to try to angle for the NC State job?

Anonymous said...

I sent you and Tony K flowers after hearing about the "resignation" of Gary Willaims. Odd how we never heard about an offer by the new AD to extend his contract.

Wise man that Kevin Anderson seems to be.

DrBear said...

The NFL overplays patriotism?Compared to NASCAR, the NFL is a bunch of lib'rul commies.

John from Indiana said...

When I think of 9/11 and sports, I can't help but think of sitting in Notre Dame Stadium the first Saturday they played college football after that terrible event. As I am certain John knows, the flight pattern for planes landing at South Bend Regional Airport flies directly over the north end of the stadium. That day was the strangest experience I have ever had at a sporting event. Each time a jet approached to land, the whole stadium became eerily still, as 60,000 eyes paid not one bit of attention to what was occurring on the field, as they gazed apprehensively at the aircraft in flight. As each plane would descend past the stadium to land, an audible, collective sigh of relief could be felt among that crowd. I hope I never have to feel that collective anxiety again at a sporting event.