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'This is no time for games'

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001


As decisions go, the one to call the players off the field was easy.

This is no time for games. The world has changed before our eyes, and who can think of games as landmarks collapse? Our nation has been violated, wounded, scarred. You do not play through that.

And so those in charge canceled sports Tuesday. They packed away the balls and put the bats in the closet and the clubs in the garage. Good for them for having the wisdom to do so.

We are hurting now. Our nation is under siege. New York has become this generation's Pearl Harbor, and its famous skyline looks like jagged teeth in the distance. We cringe, bracing for yet another attack, uncertain from which direction it may come. We sort out our emotions, the grief and the rage and the shock and the sadness and the confusion and empathy.

Games? Who felt like talking about games Tuesday? When those in charge decided to close the stadiums, it struck you as the prompt decision, the right decision, the only decision.

The hard decision is this:

When do the games go on?

Eventually, we will need sports again. Eventually, we will need the escape the games can give us, the illusion that what we are watching on the field is somehow as important as our lives away from it. Eventually, we will need sports and movies and music and every other distraction we can find to remove us, however temporarily, from the horror of the images we have witnessed. Eventually, we will need to feel normal again, whole again.

But not Tuesday. And not tonight.

As for tomorrow, we'll talk.

Following a tragedy, it is always difficult to decide when to resume play. That was true when Oklahoma State's basketball team lost players in a plane crash in January. It was true almost four decades ago, when the NFL was lambasted for playing on the weekend following the Kennedy assassination. It was true after the terrorists of Black September killed Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. Rush to the field, and you seem callous. Linger, and the enemy has succeeded in affecting your life.

This is the challenge facing Bud Selig and Paul Tagliabue and Tim Finchem and the commissioners of every college conference in America. How long should sports lie dormant? When should they resume? And does the country need a weekend off to mourn?

There are no clear answers. Of course not. Today, as much as any time in our history, we are a nation without answers. We do not know who was attacking us, or why, or if the assault is complete. We do not know if the airways are safe. We do not know if filled stadiums will present a tempting target to the murderers behind Tuesday's attack.

Until we can find out a little more information, until we can feel safe on our own soil again, we should not even think about games. If that means canceling the upcoming college football weekend, if it means Barry Bonds doesn't catch Mark McGwire, so be it.

An admission. When a bomb interrupted the Olympics in Atlanta, I thought differently. At the time, I believed in continuing the Games; otherwise, the bomber had accomplished his mission. But that had a different feel to it. This was not a random act. This was a nightmare. We need time to recover. We need space. Most of all, we need answers.

There is a part of all of us in the rubble of the World Trade Center. It is the part that allowed Americans to deceive ourselves into thinking we were safe, secure, unassailable. Oh, we heard the talk about terrorism, and we watched a thousand movies about the subject. Until Tuesday, we never really believed it. Even at moments of heightened security, during the '91 Super Bowl or the '96 Olympics, we felt a false sense of security.

We have lost that now. Perhaps, we have lost a bit of the way we deceive ourselves about sports, too. Perhaps, we have seen the folly of acting as if unimportant things were the most important of all. Judging from the size of the damage, it may take some time to recover.

For those in the business of putting on games, however, the temptation will be to do it as quickly as possible. There are titles to be won, records to be broken. Florida plays Tennessee and FSU plays Georgia Tech and Miami plays Washington. The Eagles play the Bucs.

Experience tells us this. Our nation will recover quickly from its shock. Baseball probably will continue in the next couple of nights. Golf plans to resume Friday. By Saturday, the guess is our leaders will say we know enough, and we can feel safe enough, to proceed with the football weekend.

Soon, we will be back in the stands. Once again, we will embrace the deception of sports. We will believe whatever those strangers on the field do somehow impacts our lives. We will pick sides and lose ourselves in the tiny debates. Do the Rays have a future? Does the Lightning have a past? Do the Bucs have a present? A team we pull for will lose, and we will act as if it is the worst thing that has happened. Sadly, we'll always know better.

When should the games resume?

Depends. When is it safe?

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