To Play or Not to Play: Sport’s Role in Tragedy

Sep 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM


Mark McGwire stood on steps of his dugout Thursday and seemed to fumble his way through his anger. "I feel ashamed we're even talking about it," McGwire told reporters. "For athletes to presidents of universities, general managers, owners of teams, to even think about taking a field, they should be ashamed. It's absolutely asinine."

McGwire spoke for most athletes in this country, but his comments were shortsighted. There is a lot more to the issue of where sports fit into this tragedy to simply call the decision to cancel games 'easy', as McGwire did.

It's not easy, Mark. In fact, it's damn near impossible.

The central issue is this: to what proportion – and relevance – should the enjoyment of leisure activities have amidst the emotions experienced in the aftermath of tragedy? When is it OK to laugh? Is relaxation and pleasure a form of disrespect to the victims and the situation?

Many athletes have said that there was no way the games could have been played this weekend. But I am now going to explain why I think it would have been perfectly fine – even appropriate.

There is one item on which everyone agrees: the issue of perspective. It is unquestioned. Sports are merely a divisionary leisure activity, and do not even bear mentioning when discussing the impact of Tuesday’s atrocities. But what McGwire and many other athletes seem to be forgetting is that sport was a diversionary leisure activity before these events, too. That fact is simply brought into very sharp focus when the real world explodes into our lives.

With that in mind, when is it time to take strides back towards daily normalcy? And is it right to feel 'survivor guilt'? The complexity of the answer can be seen by the various ways it has been handled by the various forms of art and entertainment.

Many prominent rock acts returned to their tours in Wednesday. PJ Harvey and Madonna were back on Thursday. Broadway reopened Friday with its star show, 'The Producers'. Here in Chicago, the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts opened Thursday with the play 'Love Letters', and the musical comedy 'The Full Monty' returned to action Wednesday.

So why is OK for music and art – two forms of entertainment given far more cultural significance than sport – to return to action the day after the attack, yet unethical for baseball to return to action Friday (three days later) and football on Sunday (five days later)? Why does McGwire think that it’s 'asinine’ to play a baseball game this weekend when his team, the St. Louis Cardinals, held a three-hour practice on Saturday?

I guess McGwire meant to say that it’s OK to practice baseball…but not play it.

In McGwire's defense, there is a feeling of helplessness in the aftermath of tragedy. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, a reporter commented that is was probably harder for the people many miles away who received the news on the radio or television. From their position, there was little they could do. Sitting far away on the west coast, that same feeling of helplessness prompted the 49ers to donate 70 pints of blood on Thursday.

This feeling, in my opinion, was a factor in Major League Baseball and the NFL to shut their games down. Professional athletes feel that same helplessness, and are often more emboldened to do something given their salaries and their role model status. Canceling games seemed like a way to do something.

Then there’s survivor guilt.

Following the events of September 11, there was a nationwide feeling of 'survivor guilt' – that sensation that makes us feel bad about feeling good during times of mourning. For professional athletes, who make outrageous salaries for what they do and are aware of it, the guilt must be especially acute. The problem with 'survivor guilt’ is that it is constant – it’s not just that people feel the need to grieve, but they feel obligated to do it almost 24 hours a day. This may not be necessary – or healthy.

"People need to know the grief and reaction will come in waves," Terrance Koller, a psychologist, told the Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune on Saturday. Kollar has worked with the Red Cross on how to handle crisis situations. "At first, the waves are close together and high. Then there is time in between the waves. It’s healing to laugh and enjoy life in between those waves. We all need to diffuse the tension and sadness."

Playing, watching, and attending baseball or football games for a few hours on the weekend is not a disrespectful act during times like these. While we mourn, we must learn to disengage ourselves from the tragedy for stretches of time. People are already doing it – by attending the art exhibits and music shows I mentioned above. By renting a movie. By reading a book. We can only watch those jets slam into the World Trade Center so many times; everyone needs some time to take our minds off real world. Sports can help us do that.

My call? The NFL should have played this weekend and donated all ticket sales and game salary (or a percentage of game salary) from the coaching staff and the players to the Red Cross. There would also be blood drive tents outside the stadiums before, during, and after the game. There could also be Salvation Army tents to donate clothes, food, or blankets to the homeless. The public would be allowed three to fours hours of down time from a week spent in grief, and the monumental donation to the victims would go a long way towards taking the edge off the survivor guilt felt by the players and fans. In fact, the playing of the game would have a noble cause. I think this serves the public, and the victims, better.

I will stand by the decision to cancel all the games this weekend. But I don’t know if it was the right decision. And it certainly wasn’t an easy one.

Upon reading a quote by John F. Kennedy on the power of poetry, Colleen Sims, a director for Chicago’s Gallery 37, said that by "exposing young people to art, culture, and self-expression, we are helping to create a future of reasonable, ethical, and compassionate people."

I can think of no better way to combat the hatred that caused Tuesday’s tragedy.

In my opinion, the single largest contribution art and entertainment can make to a nation in mourning is to help it carry on. So when the games do resume this Sunday, I urge all of you to watch or attend. Cheer for the 49ers with all the enthusiasm and joy you can find to muster, and know that you will be aiding – not hindering – America’s recovery.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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