The Role of Sports During Times of National Tragedy

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Our Real Heroes... (Photo Credit: History.com)

As the annual observance of the anniversary of the terrorists attacks on New York City, Washington, DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania that occurred September 11, 2001, this year’s observance may feel a little different to our readers. While our nation struggles with a current tragedy of a pandemic that has killed thousands of Americans, we take a moment to reflect back on the 2001 attacks and attempt to put it all in perspective with our current tragedy and how it all relates to the sports world.

It may seem trivial to include sports in this story, but, after all, I am a sports writer, and part of my responsibility is to report on everything sports, although it may feel completely insignificant when compared to tragedies that have and are currently affecting our country.

On the day of the attacks, I was employed as a school superintendent in a north Arkansas school district, and I remember immediately being concerned about where our school buses were at the time, including those carrying football teams to various parts of the state for afternoon and evening games. In the aftermath of the attacks, I remember things like insurance companies getting out of the business of insuring schools and other governmental buildings and having to find new insurance carriers for our school campuses. I also remember gasoline prices spiking at a rapid rate throughout the day, and the anger I felt feeling that there was no reason for this and that stations were price gouging people at the most inopportune time and upsetting moments. Its strange what you remember.

But where does sports fit into all of this? Perhaps the reasons are not clear because it is hard to justify sports when people are dying and under attack. In 2001, we were under terrorist attack, and in 2020, we are under the attack of a virus…another terrorist attack? Who knows. I don’t want to fuel any conspiracy theories, but the idea has surfaced from time to time.

College football fans at a Georgia Tech football game during the 1918 pandemic. Fans are seen wearing masks, but not using social distancing. (Photo Credit: SI.com)

In a story that Resident Press published last month, I mentioned that we as a nation “have been down this road before.” History repeats itself, and it holds true for the sport world and times of tragedy in our country. During the 1919 pandemic, President Roosevelt felt that sports were necessary for the mental health of our nation. And that thought has held true many times, and through many tragedies.

Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, traditional sporting events such as the annual Army – Navy football game were played after much debate. Closer to home, the annual Texas vs. Texas A&M football game, usually played on Thanksgiving Day, and featured that year a Texas team that would eventually win the national championship, was played. In short, life went on, and sports were there to provide momentary periods of relief from the stress of the tragedies we have faced.

1963 Army – Navy Game Played After Assassination of President Kennedy (Photo Credit: NY Daily News)

As a college student at the University of Arkansas in the late 1970s, I remember the Iran hostage crisis where members of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were taken hostage and held for months. Their captivity was the lead news story every night. Americans rallied at home, designating yellow ribbons as a sign of remembering those who were being held hostage. But sports continued, and that year, the Superdome in New Orleans, site of the Super Bowl that year, was adorned with big yellow ribbons. The Oakland Raiders defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, but few people outside of those cities remember who won the game. But sports continued and the game was a temporary diversion from the crisis for all Americans.

Following the 9/11 attacks, sports continued, and ironically, in a year of renewed American patriotism, the New England Patriots came back to win the Super Bowl that year. Again, few people remember who won the game, but many remember life moving forward with the playing of the Super Bowl that year. So, its not just the sports, its the solace that life is moving on with some sense of normality.

Turn the page to 2020, and the United States along with many other nations of the world find themselves fighting another crisis, another tragedy. And sports are there for the American people. It has always been a controversial decision to continue sports during times of national emergency. In events past, it has been the dignity of those involved, and the question of do sporting events trivialize what has occurred, especially in times of death. In 2020, there is a different twist. We have a virus that has the potential to affect everyone. And the athletes that are playing are making the decision to play and are weighing the risks associated with playing.

Resident Press File Photo

But regardless where you stand on whether sports should or should not be played, it is hard to argue, at least with past events, that sports have not been a welcomed diversion from the constant bad news and press coverage of those terrible events.

It has now been almost twenty years since the attacks of 2001. It’s hard to believe that it has been that long. To those of us who remember that day, we will never forget it and it will always seem like it happened just yesterday. We now have a generation of students in our schools who were born after the attacks of September 11. The post-9/11 world is the only world our children have ever known. And that in itself is a tragedy.

We tend to idolize our sports heroes. We need our “sports fix”, and thus we have college and professional sports that are preparing for seasons like none others in the past. I suggest that our real heroes have been the first responders of not only the 9/11 attacks, but each and every day they are here for us. They protect us and they come to our rescue when we need them the most. And on one editorial note…how in the world can we ever think of taking away their financial resources to do their jobs? Can you imagine New York City in 2001, if a badly de-funded New York Police Department had been left with responding to a tragedy the size of the 9/11 attacks? How can this be? Crisis call for cool-headed leadership and the coming together of all Americans. I pray for our nation that all people in our great country will be able to come together at some point to find a solution that is fair to everyone and protects the needs and interests of all people.

So, around Arkansas this coming Friday night, high school football games will be played on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The home school bands will play the national anthem as they always do. But this year, that anthem on that day, will and should have a profound effect on all of us in attendance. We have much to reflect on with the 9/11 attacks, and the current crisis that affects our nation today. But wherever you fall on the political spectrum, we are all Americans, and we all have much to contemplate. We have many to thank, both on 9/11 and today. There have been so many victims of all of these attacks, and we must never forget them.

(Photo Credit: Pinterest)

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