Last month, when the NFL released the 2011 regular-season schedule, all eyes went instantly to Week One. The first Sunday of the campaign lands on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and the powers-that-be picked games aimed at properly remembering one of the darkest days in U.S. history. The New York Jets will host a prime-time game against the franchise widely known as “America’s team.” The Washington Redskins will host the New York team Giants. Even the Steelers-Ravens game, given Baltimore’s proximity to the Pentagon and Pittsburgh’s short distance from Shanksville, site of the United 93 crash, likely was picked in recognition of the significance of the date.
Before the killing of Osama bin Laden, the combination of the calendar and the selection of high-profile games placed even more pressure on the NFL and the players to work out their differences before the start of the regular season. Given the finality flowing from the long-awaited demise of bin Laden, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 takes on greater significance — and the possibility of games not being played poses an even bigger threat to “the Shield,” pro football’s stylized answer to the stars and stripes.
Though plenty of you agreed with our assessment that bin Laden’s death makes it even more important that the games be played, plenty of you also exercised your First Amendment rights to strongly disagree with us, including literate, profound, and colorful phrases like “dumb shit.”
Regardless of whether bin Laden’s death raises the stakes for the NFL and the players, there’s no denying that a greed-induced failure to play on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 will inflict true “irreparable harm” on the sport that has become America’s pastime, possibly giving Major League Baseball a chance to reclaim the throne it occupied for so many years.
On that day, the Mets play in New York, the Nationals play in D.C., and the Pirates play in Pittsburgh. If the NFL refuses to properly remember and honor those who died a decade earlier, baseball gladly will fill the void.
For now, the two parties to the $10 billion tug-o-war are saying the right things, even if they continue to engage in (to borrow a literate, profound, and colorful phrase) “dumb shit.” In an episode of ESPN Outside the Lines devoted in large part to the issue, NFLPA* executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a written statement, “This is simple. The players are suing to play football. The owners continue to sue to stop the game. That includes Opening Day.”
The league, of course, is singing a different tune. “We clearly recognize the importance of our games on the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, also in a written statement. “It was a factor in how we scheduled games for that weekend and we have been working on an overall league-wide plan for that day. We also recognize our shared responsibility to resolve our difference as soon as possible to ensure a full football season for NFL fans. We remain optimistic that we will get there.”
It all sounds good, but the use of the term “shared responsibility” surely is aimed at allowing the NFL to place a large chunk of the blame on the players if 9/11 comes and goes without games being played. The fact that the first four weeks of the season carefully have been structured to allow the missed games to be made up later means that the league doesn’t truly view 9/11 as the last opportunity to save the full season — which likewise means that the owners regard the possibility of not playing on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as yet another potential consequence that will be forgiven and forgotten as long as each team plays its 16 games that count.
In many ways, the league already has underestimated the fans’ reaction to a work stoppage fueled not because anyone is doing poorly but because everyone is doing too well. The worst possible miscalculation would be to assume that the fans will shrug at a failure to play as scheduled on 9/11. And if the 32 emperors need tangible proof of that before they make like Joe Cullen on a Wendy’s run, they need only to consider the strong negative reaction to Rashard Mendenhall’s Twitter messages.