Down and Distance
Why the 10th anniversary of 9/11 needs a little football: NFL decision unifying,not crass
It’s a coincidence that the opening Sunday of the NFL season falls on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Since the start of the 2001 season — two days before the planes crashed into the towers — the NFL has reliably started on the first Sunday after Labor Day. It just happens that, this year, that date is Sept. 11, 2011.
That day, most Americans will be thinking about the significance of that particular anniversary — and a whole lot of them will be doing it from the couch Sunday night, while Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels narrate the drama happening between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets.
There aren’t many things that really represent our shared American-ness, but football is one of them.
That Sunday night national TV game, in particular, will resonate — America’s Team versus New York’s team (at least of the moment) — and the pregame and halftime ceremonies will reflect that. It’s a coincidence that the opening date is what it is, but it’s no coincidence that the game they’ve chosen to televise nationally features those two teams.
You just don’t get that many opportunities in life for that sort of symbolism.
The ceremonies will almost certainly be tasteful — they’ll play “Taps,” there will be first responders included, a moment of silence, the field will feature a 9/11 ribbon. It’s easy to plan ways to commemorate 9/11, especially in the context of an NFL game. It’s a lot harder to know exactly how to feel about that anniversary.
Are we supposed to mourn? Are we supposed to be angry? Is it disrespectful to those who died to care about a game, or disrespectful to them not to?
It’s been 10 years now, and the September 11th attacks have been used to represent so many things, to define and divide people in so many ways, it’s hard not to have some conflicting emotions over them. Maybe it’s more than fitting that the 10th anniversary is tied to the NFL — maybe it’s one of the ways we’ll acknowledge what we share about them. After all, nothing brings Americans together like football.
This is dangerous territory
One of the difficult things about living in America in the aftermath of September 11th is that everyone wanted ownership of the attacks. People who supported the Bush Doctrine, who saw the fall of the towers as proof that the world was dangerous and the only way to ensure our safety was to seek out and hunt down threats — they claimed 9/11 as their own. People from New York still bristle when people from the rest of the country talk about the attacks as if it happened to them personally — so many people who spent that morning in Manhattan, choking on ash and terrified, have resented the hell out of someone from Missouri who uses 9/11 as an excuse to shout them down in a conversation about foreign policy.
Maybe we’re lucky that the anniversary falls on the same day so many Americans will be celebrating one of the few things that actually brings us together.
People who wanted to mourn the dead and respond reflectively, who didn’t see responding with violence and aggression as a way to build a better, safer world, were alienated by declarations that building a mosque near Ground Zero would be a slap in the face to those who died. Beyond the fact that we all agree that what happened was tragic, we’ve spent little of the past 10 years agreeing about anything else regarding the attacks of September 11th.
And when it comes time to honor the 10th anniversary of the attacks, all of this is part of what we have to remember, too. We’ve lived in what was so commonly called a Post 9/11 World for a decade now, and what that means about how we relate to one another is still fundamentally unclear.
So we’ll all keep our mouths shut and our heads bowed during the moment of silence before all of Sunday’s games. But the odds are we’ll be thinking about very different things.
But at least those games will be played
Just about everyone agrees that America has been dangerously polarized over the past decade. A couple of years ago, Glenn Beck explained his 9/12 Project in those terms; Jon Stewart staged his Rally To Restore Sanity last year on the same idea. Those two guys — and the people who adore each of them — agree on almost nothing else, but even they saw that.
Fear and loathing aren’t just a punchy turn of phrase anymore. Hell, no. Sometimes, they feel like our guiding principles.
But we do agree on football.
There aren’t many things that really represent our shared American-ness, but football is one of them. It’s our most popular game, even though no one anywhere else in the world cares about it. You can’t talk about the game with someone from England or Brazil and expect them to get it — hell, they’re busy calling soccer football, and getting all outraged that we’d call our game that, just because it doesn’t involve much kicking.
Well, maybe it doesn’t, but try telling Miles Austin or Arian Foster or Nnamdi Asomugha or Devin Hester that it doesn’t involve your feet.
There aren’t many things that cross all political divides — that can get a committed Tea Party conservative to high-five a self-identifying anarcho-socialist, to buy each other drinks, or spend three hours every week in each other’s company. But football does it. It does it often. In bars all over the country, it’s something that makes us Americans together.
And when the season starts on Sunday, there’ll be commemorations for 9/11 — that shared day of mourning and grief and trauma and fear that quickly became wars that half the country demanded and the other half never wanted, that became a Patriot Act that made countless Americans feel like they might not belong here anymore, that became screaming matches and declarations that people who didn’t agree with a given viewpoint were unAmerican.
It’s a day that we all shared, to our mutual horror, that became so heavily politicized that remembering it can never just be about the people who died. It will always be about what it did to us, as well. And so maybe we’re lucky that the anniversary falls on the same day so many Americans will be celebrating one of the few things that actually brings us together.