It has been a year. The American reckoning, or at the very least the burgeoning outline of one, has come into focus, forced into view by a perfect storm of toxicity: a global pandemic claiming more than 205,000 lives in the United States alone; the ongoing use of police force against Black citizens that further undermines any notions of peace or change; a corporate class long indifferent to Black suffering suddenly aligning its brands with protest; fears of an illegitimate election further exposing the fragility of bonds generations of Americans think unbreakable — even as the house continues to prove it cannot stand. The nation, in short, has come apart, in words and images, deadly actions and even deadlier inaction. As a global pandemic is treated as a political issue instead of a public health one, the impatience to return to normal and urgency to protest for a new normal delays the arrival of either.
A dystopian summer saw the streets filled with anti-racism protesters, anti-mask protesters, combat-ready police and, more frighteningly, unidentified, unaffiliated “law enforcement troops” believed to be prison guards deployed by the president to police American streets. The National Guard stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial — the nation’s most powerful reminder that crossing the brink is possible because it has been crossed before — and ominously prepared to act against its own citizens. In the mayhem, sports discovered early that its preferred profit-making role as “healer” has been replaced by the profit-threatening role of “barometer” as the twin colossi of pandemic and unrest redefine society and the industry, one bubble, one walkout, one referendum on amateurism at a time. It is a new era. Within this calamity, the presumptions of our exceptionalism provided no shield; indeed, we have shown ourselves to be utterly unexceptional, and the gap between who we are and our vision of ourselves is cavernous. We live in chaos.
WHO WE ARE
My father was born in 1938; the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor three years later was the defining moment of his generation. He lived unbothered by the inconsistencies of owning at various points of his life a Japanese motorcycle (Yamaha) and television (Hitachi), yet for decades loudly refusing to take what he considered to be the traitorous step of purchasing a Japanese car — despite having over the years owned both a Volkswagen Beetle and a Jetta. His nationalism and racism finally relented around 1990, when he pulled into the driveway in a Mazda, but his stance was not uncommon; the fidelity to avenging Dec. 7, 1941, shadowed his time. My generation was defined by the Cold War and all of its fears of Manchurian candidates and nuclear Armageddon. The Soviets, the Americans, “The Day After,” the world ending. In the early 1970s, I remember being terrified by those yellow-and-black signs in the foyers and stairwells of so many public and professional buildings — a rectangular sign, three inverted triangles within a circle, and two ominous words: Fallout Shelter.
This month, the NFL resumed, and the chaos and reckoning of 2020 collided with the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The 9/11 generation is my son’s generation. The father a child of Pearl Harbor, the son of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the grandson of the twin towers’ destruction. Born three years after the attacks, he has never lived in an America not at war. The vocabulary of his generation is shaped by that day, definitions of the combatants on either side of the front line: Heroes … First Responders … Terrorists. So too are his institutions. Entering its third decade since the attacks, sports remains a visual extension of 9/11 — 20 years of sports viscerally shaped by geopolitics. The San Diego Padres and their desert camo jerseys. American flags affixed to the backboards of NBA games, player jerseys and referee uniforms. Images of the military, the flags, the flyovers and police dominating the ritualistic feel of sports. International war, and its accompanying staging, is all he and his generation know.
With calamitous result, the 9/11 countenance that has defined his time has collided with the resistance of the current moment. In an 18-1 crushing of the Toronto Blue Jays this past Sept. 11, New York Mets pitcher Jacob DeGrom wore an NYPD baseball cap, while his teammates wore caps of the New York City Fire Department and Port Authority Police — just as John Franco and the 2001 Mets did 19 years earlier. But in 2020, DeGrom’s tribute was accompanied by the term “Black Lives Matter” posted at Sahlen Field in Buffalo. That same night, the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole pitched a 6-0 shutout against Baltimore while also wearing an NYPD cap. The New York Giants announced a #TogetherBlue campaign that included the New York City Police Foundation — at the same time that the NFL agreed to stencil the messages “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” in the end zones of each stadium this fall. The Boston Celtics–Toronto Raptors playoff game held a pregame moment of silence in honor of 9/11 in the Orlando bubble, the words “Black Lives Matter” painted on the court under the players’ feet — where they have been since the league restarted on July 30. At the US Open, a tarp over the player entrance to the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium honored the NYPD, while several feet away a collection of portraits paid tribute to Black lives and to victims of police brutality. Several more feet away, Naomi Osaka won her second US Open title as her boyfriend, rapper/recording artist Cordae, cheered in the stands wearing a T-shirt that read “Defund the Police.”
This goulash of competing, contradictory messaging does not simply clash, a plaid shirt under a striped suit. These ideas stand in direct philosophical opposition to each other. The coexistence of the police pageantry and the collection of original “Black Lives to the Front” portraits in the stands at the US Open was not only incongruous but tasteless. The 20-year presence of one specifically contributed to the lack of justice for the other. A new movement has indicted the old one. The 9/11 era is over.
NO GOING BACK
Of the 2,977 people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, 343 were members of the New York City Fire Department. Those who lived it remember their own piece of it — where they were, the heartbreaking photos Time and Newsweek published of strangers and co-workers holding hands, jumping into the sky as a preference to death by inferno. It was difficult to blink without envisioning the horror of that option.
I lived in Hell’s Kitchen at the time, on 10th Avenue at 49th Street. I remember the landlines and cellphones all overloaded. I am confident it was the last time I ever used a pay phone. I called my parents. Police, firefighters and utility crews entered the bodega across the street. I remember fragments of their conversations, about the No. 2 and No. 3 trains being shut down because a water main burst and the subway flooded. There were fears that a gas main would explode after the towers were incinerated. My best friend finally got through, calling me from ground zero to say that he was OK and that his office was advising employees to stay in place. I relayed the snippets I’d overheard about water and gas mains, telling him to get the hell away from there. Covered in dust, he walked 5 miles uptown.
At Yankee Stadium and dozens of ballparks across America, metal detectors arrived that have never left. Jerry Laveroni, an ex-cop who at the time was the Yankees’ head of security, handed out American flag lapel pins to everyone. “Put it on,” he said to me. It did not sound like a request. I put it in my pocket. George Steinbrenner, enraged that Bobby Valentine, John Franco and the Mets were receiving more attention for their relief efforts and more credit for being sympathetic to a grieving city, hired Irish tenor Ronan Tynan to sing “God Bless America” at Yankee Stadium during the seventh-inning stretch. Major League Baseball took Steinbrenner’s lead, and then-commissioner Bud Selig ordered all teams to do the same — a 9/11 ritual still in place in some form to this day.
A frightened America turned to authority. It thanked police by giving them a new name: heroes. All of them. The entire profession. The ones who were at ground zero. The ones who weren’t. The ones who did heroic things. The ones who lied and stole and disgraced their profession. In Times Square and throughout New York, tourists took as many pictures with cops as they did with the Naked Cowboy, Spider-Man or Elmo. In souvenir shops across America, NYPD T-shirts, hats, hoodies and sweatshirts sold as if they were a professional sports team or university. Hudson News tables at JFK and LaGuardia airports are dedicated to NYPD merch, no different from the kiosks reserved for the Knicks, Rangers, Giants, Yankees, Jets or Mets.
The police presence became a primary component to the selling of sports — and the selling of police. Cops sang the national anthem. They sang “God Bless America.” From hotels to football, concerts to sneakers, they enjoyed promotions and price discounts in their honor. In sports, they received Law Enforcement Appreciation Nights. Fifty thousand people honoring police at Yankee Stadium, 40,000 at Minute Maid Park, 45,000 at Dodger Stadium, the first 20,000 fans receiving replica badges from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; 20,000 more at Madison Square Garden. The story of 9/11 should have belonged to the American people, and police should have contributed to honoring that day. Instead it was taken from the people and co-opted into a justification for increasing the influence and the presence of police, and the overcompensation at that time, in many ways, is responsible for the reckoning occurring on American streets today.
The people doing the clapping were not just fans but citizens, already exposed to a saturation of copaganda through the endless cop shows, reality TV and nighttime dramas, and now further exposed to the hero narrative just by going to a baseball game. Dozens of studies have shown that a significant number of Americans gain their understanding of and sympathy for policing and criminal justice through television programs.
After being exposed through sports to a massive celebration of law enforcement, they would leave ballparks around the country and serve on juries, the very same juries that routinely acquit police officers at an extraordinary rate. According to data collected by Philip Stinson, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green University, only five nonfederal law enforcement officers were convicted of murder between 2005 and 2019. The 9/11 pageantry further increased the tilting of favor toward police. Four years before 9/11, four white NYPD officers assaulted a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima. One of the officers, Justin A. Volpe, sodomized him with a broken broomstick while he was handcuffed in a police precinct bathroom. Louima eventually was granted a settlement of $8.75 million, paid for not by police but by New York City taxpayers. Volpe remains in prison. Less than a year after 9/11, in a new climate, judges and juries were loath to punish police, the heroes who kept us safe, the ones we cheered at the ballpark. The convictions of several officers were overturned, including the 15-year prison sentence of Charles Schwarz. Bad apples to good apples to heroes.
In July 2020, after the May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, several organizations, including ProPublica and the New York Civil Liberties Union, published a database of thousands of civilian complaints against New York City police officers, 323,911 unique complaints since 1994 that, according to the NYCLU, involved 81,550 active or former police officers. It also found that 97% of the complaints filed resulted in no penalty or discipline for officers, and that from the 20,826 complaints the NYPD substantiated, only 12 officers were terminated.
Both the reality of the data and the rising sense of public outrage make the continuation of the current post-9/11 sports culture seem unsupportable after the killing of George Floyd. But sports isn’t just reluctant to let it fade into history, it is outright hostile to the idea, even though there is no great public demand to continue these increasingly outdated rituals, even though the top end of the coveted 18-24 age demographic was 5 years old when the twin towers were hit. Indeed, a few years ago I asked a baseball executive why after 15 years his team still played “God Bless America” instead of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch. His response was “fear,” fear of backlash for being the first. The truth is that few people would miss it — once they noticed it was gone.
Police accountability is a volatile topic, and the public relations machines in all sports have worked overtime to soften player protest, widening it into a movement for “social justice.” Indeed, so many words have been used — social justice, racial justice, politics — to replace one: police. Athletes, from Colin Kaepernick to WNBA players to the Milwaukee Bucks, are engaged in a one-issue protest, but the word they are protesting is adamantly avoided by leagues and their broadcast partners. Make no mistake, however, about the issue. The issue is policing. NBA players might wear the words “Education Reform,” “Vote” and “Love Us” on the backs of their jerseys, but George Floyd wasn’t killed trying to register to vote. He was killed by police. Players aren’t protesting because America’s schools are in decline — although perhaps they should. They are protesting police.
And yet police and policing are precisely the issues sports — and white America, in general — attempt to avoid because they undermine the hero narrative of the past two decades that has been part of the business model. And because there is perhaps no greater gap in viewpoint between Black and white Americans than the occupation of police. In a 2016 Pew Research Center study, 75% of white Americans said they believed police employed an appropriate use of force in a given situation, compared with 33% of African Americans. Three years later, the Pew Research Center found that 87% of Black Americans believed police treated Black people less fairly, while 61% of white people felt the same. It is the reason the reaction to players from Kaepernick to Bruce Maxwell has been so severe. To much of white America, especially for white immigrants on the East Coast and in big cities, the journey to becoming American often included joining a police department — policing is not theoretical. It’s not statistical. It’s personal. It often was the profession that paved the path into the middle class for the Irish, Italians and Poles. It was how they became American. It was how they became white. Policing literally put food on their tables. While Black people see Abner Louima, they see family photos. Policing is part of their legacy. My father was a cop. His father was a cop. I became a cop. For many white people, the occupation of policing is a real and active part of their family history, and you don’t turn your back on family.
The place of police in white America is so strong that instead of police being part of the honoring of the memory of Sept. 11, it is, in fact, the other way around. From MLB to the NCAA, leagues provide the shield to give police even more space in the public discourse. Firefighters and paramedics — who were equally if not more vital on 9/11 and sacrificed just as much — have been occasionally folded into the umbrella of “first responders,” but in sports, it’s been police over the past 20 years that have consistently been given their own day, Law Enforcement Appreciation Night. A single domestic occupation over the rest of the victims of 9/11, allowed to expand its footprint under the guise of commemorating the dead. The seamless conflation of honoring the sacrifices of 9/11 and the ensuing orthodoxy around police designed to prevent accountability and intimidate criticism has been, over time, one of the more destructive forces in American culture.
The reason for this synthesis is that the role of police, especially in New York, has been radically altered post-9/11 into the domestic wing of the Global War on Terror — renamed in 2009 by President Barack Obama to the Overseas Contingency Operation — but still serving the same function. On Sept. 25, the New York City Police Department Counterterrorism Bureau tweeted that it was “closely monitoring” a potential terrorist attack in Paris. Since 9/11, the NYPD has had an officer presence in Toronto, Paris, London and several other cities on at least four continents under the NYPD “overseas intelligence program.” The expanding scope of “local police” is not theoretical but literal.
The continued evolution of the Black athlete voice now finds itself in the center of a pandemic, challenging the utility of the hero/cop narrative that has stood unmoored at the center of the game’s business model since 9/11. Players, like large portions of the rest of society, do not doubt individual acts of bravery — and certainly not the split-second and fatal reactions on 9/11 that saved lives at the expense of some of their own. What is receiving resistance from players is the occupation that is policing and the glorification thereof, its valor, its legitimacy and its refusal of accountability — as well as a public that refuses to hold the police accountable in the form of jury trials and district attorneys who do the same.
The 9/11 era cannot exist within today’s context. It is illogical for sports leagues to participate in “Blackout Tuesday” and suggest solidarity with protesters while, in real time, police fire canisters of tear gas into crowds, and while journalists covering the protests have their eyes shot out by police. The players are actively countering the hero narrative of police as assuredly as protesters are in Louisville and legislators are in Minnesota.
The NBA players wear slogans directed at police. New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton’s cleats read “Say Their Names.” Whose names? The ones killed by police. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that the league was wrong and that it should have listened. Listened to whom, and about what? Listened to Colin Kaepernick that police indeed killed and received paid vacations. On July 24, the official Twitter account of the Tampa Bay Rays tweeted: “Today is Opening Day, which means it’s a great day to arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor.” Who killed Breonna Taylor? Members of the Louisville Police Department killed her. Even as Taylor’s family received a $12 million settlement from the city without an admission of police wrongdoing, one officer who did not fire the fatal shots was indicted — not for killing her but for “wanton endangerment” of three people living in a neighboring apartment.
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Sports can continue to hold Law Enforcement Appreciation Nights when Osaka wears masks with a different name of someone killed by police before each match — but it is illogical to do so. During the Floyd protests, Minneapolis PD rolled down an American street in a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, donated by the Pentagon to American police departments under its controversial 1033 program. Unafraid for their lives and uninterested in de-escalation, police escorted the MRAP down the street, one officer instructing his fellow officers to “light ’em up,” and officers proceeded to turn their weapons toward houses and fire paint rounds at residents standing on their front porches.
After all the data, the social shift in attitude and all the years, sports cannot blithely continue to impose the 9/11 template on a shifting culture. Military Appreciation Night sent one message in 2001 but quite another in 2020. The Army has provided vehicles and combat equipment to local police departments, ostensibly to use against American citizens. The Washington Post reported that federal officials were stockpiling ammunition in preparation to clear protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., including a “heat ray.” According to the Costs of War project at Brown University, American law enforcement has received $1.6 billion worth of military-grade equipment, all provided by the Pentagon under the 1033 program. Pre-9/11, the study reported, the military had sent at least $27 million to law enforcement agencies.
Tennessee police are in possession of 61 mine-resistant armored vehicles. According to Gallup polls, 64% of Americans in 2004 felt a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in police. In 2020, that number was 48% — the lowest support since pollsters first asked the question 27 years ago and 10 percentage points lower than the average. It is a bankrupt argument. There is no going back.
Professional athletes, Black athletes in particular, have existed under a threat — the threat of removal — that has hovered over them since Jackie Robinson began challenging the country’s integration rather than simply being grateful for it. Being benched. Traded. Blackballed. Loss of sponsorships, endorsements, money. The threat of being an outcast, of being labeled a troublemaker — and of being reminded who makes those determinations. In this respect, Kaepernick was the symbol of his time, but Eric Reid, Antonio Cromartie, Bruce Maxwell and Michael Bennett, among others, all felt how willing their industry was to silence them, and how comfortable the public was with seeing them punished. Threatening Black status, especially that of athletes, is an unambiguous threat, one well-recorded by history. In 1969, Wyoming head football coach Lloyd Eaton told defensive end Tony McGee that McGee and the 13 other Black players protesting racism, known as the Black 14, could “go to Grambling or Morgan State …” or go back home to live off “colored relief” if they chose to speak out. The implication was not only a reminder of who was in complete control but also that what these players had was not considered to have been earned — and thus could be summarily revoked. Back to colored relief. Welfare. Taking away everything you think you have.
Obedience has been a defining characteristic of the post-9/11 years, where the cultural messaging to Black players and citizens alike has been to uphold the flag, which is a stand-in for upholding the military and police, which is a stand-in for upholding America, which is a stand-in for upholding whiteness — even though Black, brown and Asian soldiers comprise nearly half (46%) of the Army’s enlisted ranks. While criticism was perceived as disloyalty levying heavy consequences for everyone from the Dixie Chicks (now just the Chicks) to Carlos Delgado to Ashleigh Banfield to Phil Donahue in the early years after the twin towers were destroyed, the threat of removal for dissent has, over the past half-decade, disproportionately focused on Black athletes. Over three years ago, when the NFL collectively chose to discard Kaepernick, Donald Trump infamously goaded NFL owners to kick kneeling players out of the league. Without providing any tangible metrics of proof beyond an occasional anonymous source, media dutifully attributed any drop in NFL ratings — and now NBA ratings — to white mainstream rejection of Black protest. When sports reopened this summer with the expectation of a player response to the Floyd killing, some fans snarled, threatening to never watch the pro sports. Again, this served as a reminder to athletes about who controls them — that they are often viewed as nothing but performers in an open-air zoo cage. The threat is constant — We pay your salary — and the words familiar. If they kneel, I’ll never watch again.
For decades, the possibility of fans withholding their admiration and their disposable income was threat enough to keep the structure intact, even though the games have overcome every crisis — strikes, lockouts, free agency, player holdouts, performance-enhancing drugs, teams relocating, tanking and season cancellations. Still, there was fear fans would stay away for good. The list of crises should also include integration; for decades, white executives, led by the Yankees, were convinced white fans would not come to the ballpark faced with the indignity of sitting next to Black fans.
The killing of George Floyd in May altered the deal. In mid-August, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Bucks walked off the court before their playoff game against Orlando, and much of the sports world subsequently shut down within hours. Players for the first time entered into a game of chicken with the threat they were always reluctant to challenge. Players had a message for the segment of the public threatening to quit watching sports because they were offended by a 60-second pregame protest: Go ahead. The message extended to the owners of the game, who since Floyd’s killing had written an enormous check — in dollars and in rhetoric — of support. If a large enough segment of the public did actually abandon sports, team owners would be forced into a choice: maintain the support they pledged or reveal themselves as profiteers reneging on the players and subsequently silencing them.
By withholding their services, players also took a step toward something few have ever encountered: risk.
With precious few exceptions — Maya Moore and Kaepernick among them — much of what is called “athlete activism” has leaned closer to “support” than real “activism.” Even LeBron James, who has led several serious efforts in the area of voting enfranchisement, has nevertheless never been in a disadvantageous position regarding protest in his professional career. He is protected by his talent. His net worth nears $500 million. He began using his enormous clout after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, which was James’ ninth season in the NBA. More accurately, male athletes have used their visibility to make a statement. The wearing of a T-shirt. A slogan. Their brand managers producing glossy, cool, inspiring commercials.
This game of chicken is so pronounced in the WNBA that it scarcely resembles chicken at all — for the women have shown little to no fear of expression from the beginning. They haven’t blinked, and their combined action as a league has embedded an almost expected level of advocacy that comes with the price of the ticket. They play, but with the disclaimer that listening to them is not separate from the deal of their performance. It is all of the deal.
Kaepernick’s 2018 Nike comeback commercial, which so angered some police departments that they dressed suspects in Nike gear for mug shots, was painfully tame. It not only acknowledged the threat but acquiesced to it. In the game of chicken, it blinked. It did not feature protest. It was inspirational, challenging people to be their best selves through sport. In the ad, no one knelt. No one protested. His words did not spur activists to challenge systems, as he had. Even though the NFL had made it clear it was blackballing him — and during that time he and Reid were in the process of suing the league for it — Kaepernick stared into the camera with a line delivered in his voice: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” An image of the American flag was projected onto a building behind him. It was corporate hocus-pocus.
Protected by the pandemic, players did not risk the wrath of on-site fans when they walked out. There weren’t 20,000 paying customers waiting in their seats, about to be stood up. There were no boos in real time to endure. Executives did not have to issue refunds. No one littered the court in anger. What the players did do, however, was risk their money and their comfort. Ratings drops might equal revenue drops, which equals smaller salary caps, which means less overall money. When fans return, the reception for the players might be hostile. The players are betting on themselves, that the world wants to enjoy their skills and will now accept the same protest gestures that were once grounds for their banishment.
Angering ticket buyers might seem risky, but America is in the throes of a reckoning. During the US Open, the sub sandwich company Jersey Mike’s announced financial support of under-resourced kids. On the Boston Red Sox broadcast, CVS ran an ad promo supporting “Black and other underserved communities.” Sprite sells soda with commercials explicitly in support of the Black community. The entire corporate class — from Apple to NASCAR to Delta Airlines — has issued some statement expressing horror at Floyd’s killing with a commitment to do better. Leagues tout diversity, unity, togetherness, anti-racism. Nike’s new ad, containing the pandemic-defiant tag line “You Can’t Stop Sport,” is as direct about protest as its 2018 Kaepernick ad was elusive. Images of him kneeling in 2016 that were not used in his ad two years earlier were suddenly prominent. Now that the coast was clear, Nike found the courage to make a time of pandemic and protest plain — which was not courage at all.
Nevertheless, the groundswell of companies that implicitly acknowledge Black inequality has reached a cultural tipping point. If they are to be consistent, the sports fans threatening to quit sports because protest has become part of the business model would have to quit the entire culture. The corporate class has sent the message that, like patriotism after 9/11, it has decided to embed equality at home and challenge white supremacy (at least optically) into the selling of its products. Will fans threaten to stop buying toothpaste and razors, soda, iPhones and cheesesteaks, or predictably save their rage only for Black players they expect to serve them?
THE COST OF WAR
After nearly 20 years, America not only is exhausted but also is spent. It is bankrupt. According to the Costs of War project, the price tag of the post-9/11 war on terror stands at $6.4 trillion through fiscal year 2020 — and the interest on the $2 trillion of borrowed money to pay for these wars already exceeds $925 billion. During the NBA playoffs, veterans are viewed through a lens very different from a decade earlier, when even gasoline and car ads were swaddled in the American flag and the muscular war effort. Rocket Mortgage ran a somber commercial, in black and white, featuring combat veterans who had returned home and become homeless. The cost of war is not coldly in dollars but in lives, the ones taken and the ones broken from the toll. Suicide prevention is a priority. The Veterans Administration is woefully understaffed and underfunded. A few days after this year’s 9/11 tribute, political commentator/comedian Jon Stewart called on Congress to write legislation supporting veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. The scandals of subpar medical coverage for returning vets have not subsided. The United States has committed $437 million to veterans’ medical care — and it is not enough. Nearly two decades after 9/11, the reality of life for many veterans runs far counter to the jingoistic images at the ballpark. Americans cannot face the reality of what these post-9/11 decades have done to veterans. The 9/11 optics of sports land differently now — the one-armed soldier throwing out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium to cheers is not OK after all, and his country has not done right by him. In this environment, to continue this charade is propping up an illusion in perpetuity. The truly tough and secure need not advertise their toughness and security.
After two decades, the memory of Dec. 7, 1941, was neither forgotten, nor did it hover so viscerally over the new generation of Americans entering adulthood in 1961. This is appropriate. The memory of 9/11 should not be forgotten, nor should the difficult and inevitable geopolitics that created it. But its memorializing can be a respectful, tasteful annual event without the daily elevation of law enforcement, which serves a political motive almost completely detached from the twin towers. On Sept. 28, 13 days after the $12 million Breonna Taylor settlement was announced, Prince George’s County in Maryland agreed to pay a $20 million settlement to the family of William Green. According to The Washington Post, it was believed to be “among the nation’s largest one-time settlements involving someone killed by law enforcement.” In January, Prince George’s Police Cpl. Michael Owen Jr. fired seven shots at Green, hitting him six times, while Green was handcuffed with his hands behind his back in the front seat of a police cruiser. America has been engaged in a dangerous conflation, accepting the viewpoint that remembrance of 9/11 and the selling of police to the public are one and the same. They are not.
The country the sports industry now serves does not need its resolve restored — and, really, beyond the immediate shock of 9/11, it never did. When paying customers return to the stands, the business of sports must discover the courage to discard the pre-pandemic, pre-uprising world it left behind. The incessant genuflecting to police through Law Enforcement Appreciation Nights may still resonate to a segment of the fan base — and perhaps that segment is a sizable one — but it also resembles an authoritarian sideshow that collides with a country that now considers kneeling an acceptable gesture of protest. Perhaps the corporate strategists will attempt to appease everyone, embracing the polarization, creating a First Amendment asset — dueling opinions with no underlying values. Perhaps the words “Black Lives Matter” will be posted in one part of an arena, with words thanking the police departments that have killed and mocked Black people in another. (The NYPD officers and sympathizers who wore T-shirts that read “I Can Breathe” after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death in 2014 will also not be forgotten.) Perhaps, too, the corporate overlords will rely on American amnesia, expecting the public to forget that just a few months ago, camouflage-clad militia fired rubber bullets into crowds of fellow Americans. At the US Open, the USTA spent Labor Day celebrating not the employees who make the tournament happen every year but the military.
The rituals have run their course. The overwhelming majority of the post-9/11 years in sports did not bring healing but rather an even greater presence of police force at home and an increased sense of militarization and revenge toward the world. The chants of “USA! USA!” may have been cathartic, but they were also menacing, the chorus to President Bush telling the world during his Nov. 6, 2001 address to Congress announcing the War on Terror, “You’re either with us, or against us.” It is fashionable for fans to say they do not want politics in their sports, but for nearly two decades, American sporting events have perfected selling the politics of war. As much as the post-George Floyd protests were a response to what occurred in Minneapolis, they were also a final rejection of the police-hero narrative American sports have sold to the public. Police violence has increased, and in a world of viral videos, so has its visibility — but accountability for it has not. It is time for a long-overdue recalibration. It is over now. When fans return, the primary messaging they receive at ballparks across America should no longer be about flags and flyovers but masks and hand sanitizer. It is where we are.