There’s an online refrain when a sportswriter, blogger, or talking head dares to express a political opinion on a political issue: stick to sports.
On Sept. 10, 2001, I was sitting in Mick O’Shea’s on Charles Street in Baltimore, staring in disappointment at Monday Night Football on a tube TV. Denver Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey had just broken his leg. We didn’t know specifics at the time, but it was the sort of injury where you didn’t need to know the details to know that it wasn’t good.
I was pretty sure watching that gruesome injury would be the worst thing that happened that week, which would prove to be one of the more dramatic misjudgments of my life. But when I think about that horrible, bizarre week, it always starts with a football game and a broken leg.
The NFL wouldn’t cancel the following week’s games until Thursday morning, two full days after 9/11, which gave plenty of time for shocked, dumbfounded Americans to weigh in with their opinions. At 25, an age when wisdom is inversely proportional to confidence, I was absolutely certain that the right decision was to play the games. The if/then statement about the terrorists already having won hadn’t yet worn its way into cliche or late-night punchlines, and I’m quite sure that I deployed it here.
The whole point of sports was to distract us from real life, I reasoned. If anything, we probably needed it more, not less, after that kind of tragedy.
Then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue disagreed. In later years, he would characterize his decision as ensuring we had our priorities straight, and as I stopped being a 25 year old I found myself grudgingly agreeing that he had probably been right.
On Oct. 7, 2001, through a somewhat inexplicable chain of events (involving Midwestern kindness, an extra ticket, and the boisterous generosity that comes from being at a wedding), I was sitting at Cleveland Browns Stadium. I was nursing a hangover, feeling the cold wind coming in off the lake, and mentally getting ready to watch a football game between two teams I didn’t care about when the guy behind me leaned forward and said that we had attacked Afghanistan. He was wearing an American flag bandanna, as was the fashion at the time, and looked slightly dazed at the news. What we would come to know as Operation Enduring Freedom was underway. Again, I associate trying to watch sports with that feeling of the world tilting underneath you.
It seems clear to voters of all persuasions that the inauguration of Donald Trump represents a similarly seismic shift in the country. If you opposed him, you have probably been dazed and/or incensed since the election; if you supported him, these initial months of outrage and drama have likely dimmed your excitement.
For every column since the election, I’ve found myself wondering how I could possibly make sports feel important in the face of a national mood as fractious as I can remember. In fact, as if to rebuke the me of 15 years earlier, I even wondered if the NFL should consider canceling their games the Sunday following the election.
It didn’t, of course, nor should it have. The thought was never realistic or even sensible. But it seemed ridiculous to me to think people would be able to focus on passing yards and defensive schemes when the country was in the middle of a pretty dramatic identity crisis.
What brought me around at the time was math. The numbers pretty clearly said I was wrong. Ratings on the first day of post-election NFL games were up notably across the board. This partially validated the idea that the election had been a primary factor in driving down viewership, but the ratings were also basically saying “stick to sports.”
Viewership has remained strong into the playoffs, and now Trump is about to take over for real. The local NFL squad needs to replace two coordinators. The hockey team has started another of its annual hot streaks. And even the NBA team is striving for mediocrity. So I’ll stick to sports.
Donald Trump once took over part of another large affiliation of disparate interests with “U.S.” in the name: the United States Football League, or USFL. Through bullying tactics and media savvy, he pushed for dramatic reversals on existing policies until he got his way. His decisions led to the entire league failing and becoming a minor, amusing footnote in the history of American football.
Which is probably why when he started expressing an interest in politics, no one told him to stick to sports.