Sports can distract, but they don't heal
Too much has been made about sports' ability to help us deal with tragedy
Editor's note: This column originally was published Sept. 10, 2002. David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, wrote 12 bestsellers, including "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning" and "Summer of '49." He occasionally wrote for Page 2. Halberstam died in April 2007 in a traffic accident in Menlo Park, Calif.
The question before us today is sports and tragedy, most particularly Sept. 11. Is there a connection, and how important is it? Does the world of sports heal, and does it make us stronger, and give us precious, badly needed relief from the darker concerns and burdens of our lives, as so many people (most of them connected to the world of sports, and therefore with no small amount of vested interest) keep saying?
I have my doubts strong ones, as a matter of fact. Serious readers of this space will note that I disappeared from it for some 10 months after Sept. 11, largely because I could not find it in me for a long time to want to write about sports. That world seemed to shrink on me overnight. Instead, I wrote about the men of our local firehouse, 12 of whom had perished on that apocalyptic day. So, along with my doubts, I have my prejudices.
I like sports, enjoy the artistry of them enormously. I love to watch great athletes compete against each other in big games or matches, like Sampras beating Agassi in the U.S. Open final. But I think there is an important faultline out there somewhere: The world of sports is the world of sports, and reality is reality.
Sometimes sports mirrors society, sometimes it allows us to understand the larger society a little better. But mostly, it is a world of entertainment, of talented and driven young men and women who do certain things with both skill and passion. I am always amused at playoff time by those obsessive superfans, who cast the players from their home team as the good guys, and the visitors as evil -- they hate the opposing players and do not understand that, in most circumstances, the players they root for are closer to the players they hate than they are to their adoring fans, and would almost surely rather go out for dinner with the alleged enemy than they would with the home-team fans.
I am wary, as well, of those people who say after a given World Series or Super Bowl victory that it saved the city, made it whole and healed deep-seated racial grievances. When I hear things like that -- and I often do -- I usually think, "I'll give it about two weeks before it all unheals." In truth, if making your city whole demands a World Series victory on behalf of athletes who more often than not flee the city the moment the season is over, then your problems are probably harder to solve than you realize.
Nor did I think, during the Vietnam years, that the link between the NFL and the Pentagon (all those jet fighters flying overhead at the Super Bowl) greatly helped the war effort, nor factored into the WVA or the Viet Cong's schedules. I was not much moved by the Army's television recruitment commercials showing teamwork between NFL players, who most demonstrably had no intention of serving in the military.
So back to the question at hand -- did sports help bind us in the days, weeks and months after Sept. 11? Did we need to be so bound? The answer to the first question is, I suspect, a little bit, and my answer to the second is, I fear, surprisingly negative. If, in the long run, you need sports to help you through a time of tragedy and to take your mind off a grimmer reality, then you are emotionally in so much trouble in not understanding what is real and what is fantasy that the prospects for your long-term emotional health are probably not very good.
Let me suggest that there are notable exceptions to this, and that many of us, at one time or another, have gotten some kind of lift -- albeit usually a brief one -- from the performance of a favorite sports team on an unusual roll. I am a New Yorker, and there is no doubt that in all the pain and grief that followed the assault on the World Trade Center, the last-minute run of the Yankees -- particularly some of the late-inning rallies in the World Series -- were unusually sweet, that for a short period of time, they lifted many people in the city, including a great number (such as my wife, who usually does not care very much). It was an aging Yankee team, trying for one last hurrah, the starting pitching was wearing a bit thin -- as were some of the left-handed hitters -- but it made one last wonderful run. I suspect the city boosted the team and the team, in turn, boosted the city. It surely made The Stadium a more difficult place to play for some of the visiting teams.
But for all the sportscasters who tried to push the point too hard, that the grief and passion of New York lifted the local athletes, we have these other reminders: the dismal performances of the Giants (just a year removed from a Super Bowl appearance) and, all too soon, the even more dismal performance of a Knicks team that openly cheated its fan base -- the sorriest performance by a local basketball team in the 35 years in which I had paid attention.
So, if there is a connection, it is likely to be a thin one. In my own case, I can remember one particular time in my life when a sports team made something of a difference in my overall mood.
It was in September and October 1967. I was in Vietnam on my second tour as a reporter. More than 500,000 U.S. troops were in the country, and I was in a terrible mood. I thought the war was stalemated, which meant we were eventually going to lose because it was their country, and sooner or later we would have to go home -- those of us who would be lucky enough to get that chance. More, I hated what I saw about me every day -- all the lying from the Saigon press officers -- and I hated what it told me about my beloved country back home, which was, for me, becoming harder to love at that moment.
That happened to be, by chance, the year that Carl Yastrzemski played so brilliantly in September to lead the Red Sox to the pennant. So I would go every morning (there was, as I recall, a 12-hour time difference) to the AP office in downtown Saigon where the baseball news and box scores would come in, clicking slowly over the old-fashioned teletype. And I would watch for Yaz, and he never seemed to disappoint -- 3-for-5, one home run, three RBIs. And of course, a great catch.
I was joined there every day by Tom Durant, a Boston native who was over there working as a doctor. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with a man who was as close to being a contemporary saint as any man I've ever know. He devoted his entire career to bringing desperately needed medical care to people in Third World countries. Doc Durant died last year, and I, like thousands of others, mourned him; we were, it seemed, bonded by Vietnam, the 1967 baseball season and Yaz's ability, and thus able to feel a little better about our country. When we saw each other, even in the 1990s, we thought about Yaz in 1967. But moments like this are rare -- a brief bit of sunshine in an otherwise difficult setting. If it's a fix, it's a momentary one at best.
That's what I think is at stake here. The parallel between what sports does for the country now and what it did during World War II is, I think, the wrong one. The America of 1941-45 was more of a Calvinist nation, with far less in the way of entertainment. Baseball -- poorly played as it was, with aging Veterans and lots of minor-leaguers -- was a small bit of normalcy in a nation where almost everyone's life had been profoundly changed by the war. People's lives were much harder, and almost the entire nation was making a national effort which demanded considerable sacrifice. There was radio, but no television, and a family going off together to a movie was a rare treat. So it was completely different from the America that exists today. In those days, we badly needed every respite we could get from the reality of the war, especially in the first year when the news was systematically bad. We needed some limited degree of diversion.
But today it's completely different. We live in an entertainment society. There is little around us but diversion -- even people trying to broadcast the news have to make it ever quicker, simpler and more entertaining in order to compete with rival channels. Many people have television sets with 200 channels. Video games and computer games abound. The sports glut remains exactly that -- a glut. We watch what has become a never-ending season -- football in the summer, baseball in November, basketball, it sometimes seems, throughout the year.
We lead lives surrounded by diversions. The manufacturers of our fantasies -- in Hollywood with movies and television, and of course in the world of sports -- are more powerful and influential than ever. Keeping the nation tuned to serious concerns is infinitely harder than it was 60 years ago. Diversion comes more readily.
After Sept. 11, there was a relatively short span of time when people cared about foreign news and were momentarily weaned away from their more parochial concerns. But now it's largely back to normal. There might be, in the back of the minds of millions of people, a certain uneasiness a year after Sept. 11, because we know that America is no longer invulnerable, and that we can be attacked.
But in truth, the events themselves touched a very small percentage of the population. Unlike World War II, we operate with an elite, highly professional military that comes from very few homes. Almost no one else has been asked to sacrifice -- there is no rationing, and the contemporary U.S. economy is so different from the one 60 years ago that the president's main request to the American people was to ask us to travel more, presumably because the airline industry was so shaky.
As for the families who were actually touched by this tragedy, I would not presume to speak for them -- they are eloquent enough in their own behalf. But the idea that their lives are in any way better because of what a given sports team did in the following months is barely worth mentioning.
In truth, our lives are what we make of them. We work hard and, at the end of the day, in a world that is often mundane, the ability to watch one or two sports games a week is a kind of blessing, a relief from what is often a difficult routine. But if we want any kind of real emotional balance, we must get it from our loved ones, family, friends, co-workers.
I am made uneasy by those who seem to need sports too much, these crazed superfans who bring such obsessive behavior to games where complete strangers compete. There is an equation at work here: The more obsessive they are as fans, the emptier I suspect their real lives are.
And so let me descend in advance from all the sportscasters and all the blathering that's going to go on in the next few days about the importance of sports after Sept. 11. Many of these sportscasters will push the importance and restorative qualities of sports. Let me suggest that we will do well in the current and difficult crisis not because the 49ers, Cowboys or Patriots do well, but rather if as a nation we are strong, wise and patient. That's all it really takes.