by | Jan 18, 1991 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

So the question now becomes: What do we do with ourselves? All of us civilians, who are watching this most strange and awesome war on our television sets, what do we do? What is the right thing? The pictures, the voices, even at times the very sounds of war, live, in our living rooms, make us feel involved. And feeling involved, we feel we must help out, we must contribute in our own little way.

But how? Here, in the suddenly meaningless world of sports, an idea has surfaced: cancel games, specifically the football championships scheduled for Sunday and the Super Bowl scheduled for Jan 27. After all, some say, these games are so unimportant in light of what’s happened; to play them in the same hours that our children fly planes in the dark Iraqi skies would be terribly inappropriate.

This is the right emotion.

But the wrong idea.

You don’t take something unimportant and make it more important by calling for its cancellation. Sports — particularly professional sports — are nothing more than a job for the participants, no different than the job you and your neighbor go to this morning. Players get paid to work. Same goes for hot dog vendors, for ticket-takers, for broadcasters. Oh, sure, the NFL championships are viewed by millions, they are cheered, celebrated, ballyhooed. But that is our doing. And it can surely be toned down.

After all, no one ever said football must have cheerleaders and the Wave to exist. Make it safe, or stop it

There is one reason, and only one reason, to consider the cancellation of any sporting event now: safety. This is crucial. The fear of terrorist activity makes you think twice about assembling 50,000 people in one place — particularly since Saddam Hussein has promised terrorist acts as part of his warfare. The TV exposure a terrorist would receive at a Super Bowl or even an NBA regular-season game is truly frightening.

So this is priority No. 1. And heaven help the organizers of any event if they let profit overshadow safety. If the field and stands cannot be more than reasonably secured — especially in these first tinderbox days of war — then there is no way that particular game should be played. No way. The loss of one life, even the crippling or injury of a single fan, would not be worth it.

But, having said that, know that this is a separate issue. It has nothing to do with sports being inappropriate during wartime. As a matter of fact, the coming together for a game with friends and family is, in a small and funny way, exactly what our troops are fighting for. On a radio talk show Thursday morning, a Vietnam veteran expressed support for sports, saying:
“When we were over (in Vietnam) the games we heard on radio were a great way to escape for a few hours, and to feel like the life we left behind was still going on.”

I have heard people comparing this to the California earthquake that shook the 1989 World Series. But that was different. Those games were in the very shadow of a devastated city, while bodies were still being pulled from the rubble. The proper thing to do was postpone, wait until the healing had begun. This was done. The games resumed.

I also hear comparisons to November 1963, when the NFL played its regular schedule the weekend after President John F. Kennedy was killed. This was a mistake. America suffered a crippling blow — on its own shores — and no one was ready for football, national grief had not subsided. Once again, this might be different from what is happening now. Sure, this war could escalate to such a serious degree that no one would be ready for anything other than news from the front. We all pray that will not happen. The news of the chemical bombings in Israel Thursday night, for the moment, makes you forget who’s in the playoffs altogether.Our lives, their lives

But still, in theory, there is no reason sports cannot continue in war the way we all continue in war, with a heartful of concern. I am sure upcoming games will contain dedications to the soldiers — silent moments, arm bands, special versions of the national anthem. Good. Helps us remember. The alternative, to cancel sports, would suggest you also cancel opera, movies, Broadway, HBO.

War, for civilians, is not about denial of everyday life. It is about realizing how special everyday life is. That brings me to one last point: During the first hours of fighting Wednesday night, three CNN reporters, on worldwide TV, gave riveting first-hand accounts of the “fireworks” nature of the U.S. bombings. They were excellent in reporting. They made a few nervous jokes. But at no time did they mention that with every flash of light, people might have been killed, human beings who, despite being the enemy, still had families and loved ones.

To me, that’s inappropriate. I’m not really a religious person, but I do recall a story in the Bible after the Egyptians were killed trying to cross the Red Sea. On the shore, the Hebrews began to celebrate, happy that their enemies were vanquished. And God came to Moses and said, in effect: “Tell them not to celebrate. The Egyptians are my children, too.”

That’s a good story, I think, worth remembering at this fragile time. Ours or theirs, these are still human beings. To ignore or in any way celebrate death — now, that would be inappropriate.

To try to continue life as we know it is not.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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