Legendary sports journalist Howard Cosell once called sports our nation’s toy department.
That the arrogant, scolding Cosell could lodge a self-deprecating commentary on the subject he canvassed with such aplomb throughout his heralded career is remarkable.
That he so thoroughly missed the mark on the importance of sport within the framework of American society is almost unthinkable.
Sure, I understand that in times of national distress sports deservingly take a back seat in the collective conscience of the American people.
I get that, and from that perspective, Cosell’s assertion stands up: sports are a form of escapism, and as such, the games should be played when the chores of a distressed America are dealt with.
But if there has been a collective assembling place for America’s grieving in the world that has emerged in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, it has been in our nation’s coliseums and stadiums, arenas and gyms.
After terrorists shattered our illusion of safety on that fateful morning, we didn’t play the games.
We shouldn’t have.
There were no cries for peanuts or programs in the aisles of Lambeau Field. You couldn’t hear the turnstyles creak at Wrigley Field. The methodic rhythm of leather on hardwood ceased at Mac Court.
Our nation observed a long moment of silence.
But as we began the healing process – imperceptibly at first, the enormity of the event so crippling in its scope – America looked to rehabilitate its spirit.
And the parks began to fill.
The first ballgame I caught after the tragedy was an Atlanta Braves game on cable.
I had to go to work that evening but I couldn’t get off of the couch.
The stadium was awash in our national colors, with red, white and blue decorations hanging from the fa퀌_ade of each deck. The crowd was represented similarly and if there were a statistic kept for the number of spectator signs, the Atlanta fans would have shattered the record with their outpouring of patriotic sentiment.
A group of marines engaged in a 21-gun salute as F-15 jets streaked over the stadium in the last light of a late September afternoon, and Diana Ross delivered an emotional rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
The sense of community I felt with my fellow Americans on that afternoon is something I’ll never forget.
When I arrived at the restaurant for my evening shift, 15 minutes late, the bar was packed and all eyes were on the Braves game. The flow of traffic in the dining area had slowed to a crawl and it looked like some patrons had left their seats there to view the spectacle of the ballgame in the bar.
And that’s where it happened.
Strangers talked with one another. They exchanged handshakes. They felt better.
Sports have that power. They unify individuals across racial and economic boundaries.
Whether you’re a high-powered attorney or you work on the assembly line at a Ford automotive plant, you’re probably pissed at what Wayne Fontes did to the Detroit Lions.
Whether you’re a neurosurgeon at OHSU or a welder at one of the marinas on the Willamette, chances are you have an opinion on the topic of Bob Whitsitt.
These are the unifying elements of sport, the common threads that tie people to each other and also to place.
As I compose these words on another rainy afternoon in Portland, I’m touched by what I see on the television, from the corner of my eye.
A large American flag unfurls on the playing surface at the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis. The Rams and Packers are gearing up for a playoff game on the sidelines, but first country music artist Jamie O’Neil will sing the Star Spangled Banner.
What once was a formality is now a rallying cry.
The words to the song unfold on the lips of the players on either team, and just over four months after one of the darkest days in our nation’s history, sports have once again brought us to a common place to share a common ideal.