Deciding when to play sports not easy

What may seem mawkish to one person could be totally appropriate to someone else.

In the last 60 years, the sports world has been stuck with the dilemma of if it should go on with business as usual in the face of tragedy several times. This week's unimaginable terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. - on this nation - has once again challenged the major professional and college sports franchises to make this simple decision: To play or not to play.

It appears that the National Football League is facing the most pressure because of Pete Rozelle's decision to continue with games in 1963 after President John F. Kennedy's assasination.

Rozelle later admitted it was the decision he most regretted in his life. But after all, there was money to be made. Money.

Avery Brundage also made the ill-fated decision to just have one day of mourning and then continue with the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany despite the murderous tragedy that went on there.

That by the way was the first time that the grim reality of terrorism was piped into our living rooms live and in living color. No 7-year-old kid should be exposed to that, but I was and it still haunts me to this day.

For the most part, professional and major college athletes are detached from politics and usually are too busy to worry about such matters any way.

But there are occasions when politics and sports collide. Many Major League players refused to play in the wake of Robert F. Kennedy's assasination in 1968. Hundreds of college athletes refused to participate in their events following the Kent State incident in 1970.

I once covered a high school all-star basketball game in which one of the players participated even though his brother had recently died. At first I didn't understand how he could play, but then I changed my view after hearing this young man talk about the love he had for his brother after the game.

It would be foolish for someone to suggest that a policy could be applied to this issue, but I'm going to try. When a tragedy is an isolated incident and affects an isolated event, the games should not go on as Avery Brundage had said.

There's no way that the NFL should have gone on with its games in 1963. Likewise with the national champion basketball game between North Carolina and Indiana in 1981 on the same day of the assasination attempt of President Ronald Reagan. Evidently, Bob Knight versus Dean Smith was more important.

But when the national psyche is affected the way it has been this week, life must go on. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt told Major League Baseball it should continue for the morale of the country.

The Pulitzer Prize winning sports columnist Red Smith wrote about how his editor strongly disagreed with that decision, saying anything that didn't go directly to the war effort should be shut down.

By that reasoning, Smith wrote, florists should stop making deliveries because it didn't directly go to the war effort.

In the same way that Roosevelt tried to maintain some normalcy with the continuation of Major League Baseball during World War II, President Bush should have also instructed that all the major sporting events continue as soon as possible and not be canceled this weekend, travel permitting.

While it's been virtually impossible, this nation has at least symbolically made it a point to let terrorists know they won't affect our way of life and a statement from Bush that major sporting events should continue would have been a powerfully symbolic message to boost morale.

NFL players and coaches are relunctant to participate this week and that's understandable. But if the NFL games are canceled and the season is shortened to 15 games, all of the players and coaches should donate 1/16th of their salaries to helping the victims of this week's tragedies.

We all had a job to do as much as we didn't want to do it this week. I felt like telling my boss I just didn't want to come in on Tuesday, but I certainly wouldn't have expected him to still pay me. But I knew I had to come in because I had a job to do.

There will always be days to play children's games. Deciding when those days should be in the wake of tragedy is never easy.

Charles Whisnand is the Nevada Appeal Sports Editor.


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