Sports after 9/11 and the remaking of the American athlete

Fans Richie Budion, left, Sal Candiano, center, and Nick Giampietro hold a banner and a flag before the Sept. 11, 2021, game between the Mets and the Yankees at Citi Field in New York City. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Americans love round-number anniversaries. They provide a national alarm clock, reminding us that enough time has passed to collectively return to a moment that requires our attention -- to wake up, remember and never forget. It has been 20 years since the disaster that was Sept. 11, the day we were once made, unmade and remade. It would be inaccurate to refer to the deluge of acknowledgments and commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the Twin Towers' destruction as a revisiting, or even a retrospective, for that Tuesday morning in 2001 has never left. There is nothing retro about 9/11, nothing, if you were there, to wake up and remember. It is in you. It created the America we now inhabit and sculpted the flailing and angry, disfigured country we have been. But Americans love round numbers, and especially the opportunity those round-number anniversaries provide to filter time through a very specific lens: marketable and authorized and acceptable -- and wholly discordant to then and now.

During the weekend of commemoration, the Boston Red Sox played the Chicago White Sox. On NESN, the Red Sox television network, a logo appeared in the upper right-hand corner of the screen: the number "9" accompanied by a dot and an "11" with each "1" forming a tower of the World Trade Center. Major League Baseball released a commemorative patch of a red, white and blue ribbon containing the words, "September 11, 2001. We shall never forget," which appeared on the side of each team's caps. The New York Yankees and New York Mets faced each other at Citi Field. Bobby Valentine, manager of the Mets in 2001, and Joe Torre, who managed the Yankees, simultaneously threw out ceremonial first pitches to a pair of first responders.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, the United States pulled out of Afghanistan. Horrific images of Afghans clinging to the takeoff gear on ascending airplanes, choosing death over returning to Taliban rule without American protection, delivered a haunting reminder of the totality of 20 years of wreckage. I wondered whether the American sports industry would use the ignominious end of a seemingly endless war to turn down the volume on the commemorations. To opt for quiet. It did not. There were moments of silence at several ballparks around the country, but they were brief -- interludes within the branding din, logos, patches and all.

There is, after all, nothing marketable or triumphant about quiet. Americans cheered and chanted at baseball games. College football players raced onto the fields, the American flag held high, reinforced by raucous, full stadiums. For all of the sadness of the day, 9/11 is often positioned not as a devastation but as an affirmation of the American spirit.

The tenor and tone marking the day were unsurprising. It was broken-clock predictable that the day would be sold as a day of remembrance and resilience and all of the other clichés. Much of the programming across the country followed the same template, the worst day of this century would be prettied up into triumph, because Americans never lose -- even though the amount of what's been lost has been overwhelming. If one did not know better, Sept. 11 could be seen through this lens as simply a tragic event, and not a cataclysmic one from which we have never quite recovered. In America, we are not allowed to mourn, to grieve, to lose. Even the most obvious losses must be manufactured into victory. We cannot handle anything else.

Within this smothering cacophony, there was little space for competing prisms of truth. I felt American on Sept. 11, 2001; the entire nation was attacked, and I was a part of that nation. I have been afraid of America every day since. People were scared to death, scared of death. I was afraid what we would do with our grief. Indeed, much of it was not grief at all. It was revenge, which turned into policy, which became culture, a cannon soon to be pointed at other Americans. The then-Dixie Chicks, cowed into silence after criticizing then-President George W. Bush, know this. Carlos Delgado, attacked for criticizing America after the shameful Abu Ghraib prison scandal, knows this. Toni Smith-Thompson, the college basketball player who turned her back on the flag during the national anthem in protest of war and empire, knows this. Ashleigh Banfield and Phil Donahue, removed from network television after criticizing the rush to war, know this. Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid would soon come to know this. The opportunity to speak, to grieve, to be American, had been removed, unless it conformed within the accepted parameters of expression -- vengeance masquerading as grief. I lived in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, on 49th and 10th in Midtown -- Hell's Kitchen -- and the aftermath of the towers' collapse was not unity. It was an unleashing. It was quickly obvious what was forming. Institutions that were historically hostile to Black people -- police on the street, fire and police departments when it came to minority hiring -- became more hostile. Police are more powerful now than they were 20 years ago. Rudy Giuliani, as anti-Black a mayor as there was on Sept. 10, had become America's Mayor the next day; and when baseball resumed, there he was, at Yankee Stadium, in team owner George Steinbrenner's luxury box, often sitting right next to Donald Trump. It was a preview.

I remember the rage, so many people openly talking about getting them, and as we all knew, getting them was just a subway stop from getting us. As Americans in the Muslim communities in Paterson, New Jersey, and Dearborn, Michigan, and others knew, it was the same thing: Getting them meant exactly that. There was a reason the ethnic restaurants on Ninth Avenue in New York put miniature American flags in their windows. They knew they were the target. They were afraid they'd be next.

As always, so many of us, and Black people especially, were stuck between the humanity of grief -- watching the doomed hold hands while leaping into space as a preference to death by incineration -- and the foreboding onrush of what was coming: the silencing, the compliance, the nationalism, a future of emboldened hostility advertising to whom they believed this country belonged. It was only a matter of time.

Sept. 11 and its immediate aftermath have always been separated from the years that followed. The towers collapsed and the phones went dead and people caked in ash walked north up Manhattan or across the bridges, needing one another. For months, around midafternoon, when the winds shifted north, white flakes -- ash, asbestos, death -- floated in the midtown air, from ground zero to Harlem. Every day, we literally breathed grief.

And then came the rest of our lives. President Bush told the world it was either with us or against us. Instead of being a nation whose citizens felt the pain, Americans were to view themselves as exceptional. The "others" were trying to destroy our way of life. America's "war on terrorism" would mean a military presence in nearly 40% of the world's countries; and at home, it meant sports would demand that fans and TV watchers cheer for first responders, especially cops -- including the Black people being knocked around by them. For the next 19 years, remembrances of Sept. 11 were allowed, while questions about the destructive political response that followed were not. Anyone who did not strictly follow the script was viewed as a traitor.

At play was a particularly American sleight of hand, an effort to meld the grief and vengeance into one. They are not. A commemoration of one without acknowledgment of the other creates discordance, which shields us from just how disastrous the response to a terrible day has actually been, how much we have lost and just how badly. To confront those depths is devastating -- death, defeat and failure without recovering meaning. As a coping mechanism, it almost feels appropriate. But our history of denial, this demand for exceptionalism, has its consequences. Perhaps the adamant separation of the two -- the day itself and the years that followed -- is out of respect for the dead. It would be a good sentiment, but I do not believe it.

The wars of 9/11 are officially over, but sports seems to have no interest -- as it did at the conclusion of previous wars -- in decoupling from war and rejoining peacetime. Sports will "never forget" by never letting go, despite the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. When Steinbrenner instituted the singing of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch of games (and the rest of MLB followed), he said the Yankees would do so until the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were over. The wars are over, but for sports, their ends are inconsequential, marking nothing. With or without active conflict, Sept. 11 is now part of sports. After World War II ended and after the first Gulf War ended (1991), the flag decals on helmets and jerseys disappeared, as, largely, did the flyovers -- the Super Bowl excepted -- and the game returned to being a game. In America today, Sept. 11 remains the lifeblood of sports -- not without alternative but specifically by choice.

Here and now

Sept. 11 created a new world, a new sports industry and a new athlete. The athletes born out of the 9/11 era are more aware, more confident and more intent on redrawing the traditional lines of engagement between themselves and the fans, the media and the teams, as well as the leagues that pay their salaries and the governing bodies that attempt to control them. The players in large measure do not articulate 9/11 as a source of their development. But the collisions of overt patriotism and stifling of protest over the past decade and a half created their urgency, gave them voice. It is their era. Detaching player empowerment from Sept. 11 might be a strategic move for athletes -- questioning 9/11 in any way is always a losing fight -- but there exists an inevitable throughline between the increased politicization of professional sports and the ensuing activist athlete that would affect elections, inspire kids and shift the balance of power between owners and players. As much as any industry, it was sports that forced the hero narrative of policing onto the public. When police were unheroic, it was the players, compliant to the national messaging just a decade and a half earlier, who joined in voicing injustice, on the field, sometimes in the street, in a way they had not on 9/11 or in the 30 years previous.

Once, the players were only dutiful in showing up for the country. Mike Piazza's home run when the games resumed after the Sept. 11 attacks is the Mets' most iconic moment over the past 30 years. Boston will never forget the image of David Ortiz during the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing -- and ever since, the players have demanded to be heard on their terms. They showed up, and now have an ask of the public in return: We have been there for you, and now it is time for you to be there for us.

During a slide last month, some Mets players briefly took to the fans booing the club by booing fans back -- giving them a public "thumbs-down" in inverted response to their applause when the team succeeded. A month earlier, legendary gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from Olympic events in Tokyo because she was not in the proper mental headspace to compete. In the NBA, from Russell Westbrook to Kyrie Irving, several incidents of fans throwing items or verbally assaulting players were met with confrontation by players and the backing of the league; it was a stark contrast from the infamous 2004 Malice at the Palace brawl in Auburn Hills, Michigan, between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons, after which then-commissioner David Stern levied the full force of the league on players without doing anything to hold fans accountable for their actions.

In response to the broad but growing issues surrounding the mental health of athletes in sports, the US Open instituted a "quiet room" where players could regroup as they navigate the pressure cooker that is winning a major championship. In addition to the larger movements addressing #MeToo, police brutality and voting rights, the athlete is now saying that the customer is no longer always right -- that they do not exist only for mere entertainment nor must they remain silent while subjected to abuse. After generations of absorbing pain as a barometer for toughness, players are affirming their right and obligation to protect themselves.

Ours is a culture now, at last, conflicted by cruelty. It is, at least, grudgingly willing to accept that cruelty has its limits. But the conflict is real. We are at once professing some interest in ridding ourselves of the harsh conditions that for the past century have been prerequisites for true champions. At the same time, we condone the existence of varying forms of adversity -- fan abuse, booing, media scrutiny, paparazzi -- as justifiable obstacles in exchange for the enormous sums of money and adulation athletes receive, pressures that are part of the champion's crucible.

Over the summer, the public and the media in turn began to retrace and rethink that championship road, rediscovering some of the casualties along the way, rethinking how they were treated. Decorated swimmer Michael Phelps and tennis player Mardy Fish are among those who prominently fought the difficulties of competition -- and instead of treating them as chokers and weaklings who lacked the fortitude to complete the quest, what tended to follow was often an authentic, largely compassionate reexamination of the effects of pressure. Whether we want to admit it or not, it is not only a game. Pressure does destroy people. We have seen it. We just haven't cared -- at least not enough.

No one has exemplified the attempt to rebalance sports this year and its accompanying complexities more than Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka. Her withdrawal from the French Open and Wimbledon for mental health reasons spotlighted this referendum on sports as business as usual. The term "mental health" at the time was as broad as it was jarring, for it was initially unclear to what she was referring. Osaka said she had been struggling since defeating Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open, but the target of her grievance was not vague. It was specific: the media obligations that precede and follow matches at tennis tournaments. Questions created doubt, and she needed to remove herself from situations that made her less confident.

She had supported protests after George Floyd's murder in May 2020, wearing masks with the names of Black Americans killed by police violence or racial profiling. Aided in the cacophonous halls of social media by the corrosive strain of anti-journalism that continues to poison this country, Osaka was lauded anew for being a part of another movement. But this year, after the French Open and Wimbledon, there was no movement. Many of her fellow players offered support, but they did not follow. Whether born out of fear of reprisal from tennis governing bodies threatening heavy fines for unattended media sessions, the need of players less famous than Osaka to build their visibility through media attention or just by concluding that media obligations were merely a minor nuisance that came with the territory of their compensation, the overwhelming response from her peers was that reforming the postmatch interview culture was ultimately not a fight worth waging.

A private enterprise

Outside of his pregame and postgame responsibilities, LeBron James does virtually no in-depth, long-form interviews on platforms in which he does not possess some controlling ownership stake. His production company (SpringHill) and his television talk show ("The Shop: Uninterrupted" on HBO) provide his "platform." Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Westbrook each have production companies and often programming where they are the executive producers. Carmelo Anthony recently formed Creative 7, his new non-sports production company. Williams has a first-look documentary deal with Amazon Studios. Kaepernick hasn't given an interview in nearly five years but has a first-look film deal with Disney and a forthcoming Netflix television show based on his life. Osaka appeared in a video roundtable as part of being guest editor of an issue of the boutique tennis magazine Racquet, and she released a three-part Netflix documentary (executive produced by James) earlier in the summer. And she is scheduled to appear on an upcoming episode of "The Shop."

Born of the 9/11 era, many inspired by Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, Missouri, and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, fueled for years by having their patriotism questioned -- even by a sitting president -- and by earning unprecedented salaries, modern athletes have opened another front that has furthered their empowerment: controlling potential hostile media rooms by nearly circumventing them altogether.

Players have taken ownership of the ostensibly cruel spaces by carving out alternate routes. In a time of distrust of the media, the moves have been positioned as a triumphant claiming of power -- another place where the athlete, for decades at the mercy of the media, has finally matured and triumphed. Anything that weakens public journalism, the proclaimed enemy of the people, is often considered a victory -- a dangerous fallacy, for it assumes truth is a goal of the celebrity athlete. It isn't. The players have entered the celebrity class and now understand the enormous value in controlling information. It is certainly a form of power, but it is also privatization. The athlete controls the answers and the questions. They get to exist unquestioned -- Osaka's goal of facing only friendly outlets with only friendly questions realized. Osaka was praised over the summer for breaking barriers; but just as loudly in private (yet gingerly in public), an equal amount of discussion questioned her embrace of this trend not of her making, criticizing her for the incongruity of being the most visible female athlete in the world, with more than $50 million in endorsements, who, in the end, simply did not want to be questioned.

Consolidation of this type of power is considerable, but it is not community, nor is it activism. Becoming further detached from and less accountable to the public, or purchasing equity stakes in professional sports teams, does not square with the players positioning themselves as activists. It is not possible to at once be the activist and the empire. The conflation of the two by a public starved to see a certain type of liberation is a common error in the rush to anoint player actions as significant or unique. Empire -- the accumulation of wealth, space, influence, information -- is as much a goal and conclusion for the players as their position strengthens. The players -- viewed as activists just a few years ago -- have become the power. And in seeing this rise, many people will cheer the athletes along the way, celebrating each power move -- often considering it activism -- without assessing from where the power is derived and for what purpose it is being used.

Twenty years ago, before the towers fell, professional sports wanted virtually nothing to do with the outside world. It was a distraction. Politics, partisanship, divisions -- bad for business. Then the towers fell. At that time, professional athletes viewed life similarly to the way the corporations that signed their paychecks did: Talking about issues outside of the game could only hurt. The players seemed virtually infantilized in their responses to and interactions with the world. They were not, of course. They were worse than childish. They had largely accepted their roles as the reinforcers of a certain capitalist fantasy: the one-in-a-million talents who cashed in on the American lottery and, in return, did not upset the order that made hitting a ball with a stick a pathway to impossible levels of generational wealth.

On 9/11, when the empire was wounded, the players reaffirmed their fidelity to the status quo. They said the right things. Outside of a courageous few, they did not question. Yet that day also commenced their graduation. Without their consent, the world would come to them. And within a decade, with one police shooting too many, many would grow up, speaking without permission, choosing how they would present themselves to the public. Today, they have embraced activism. They have embraced advocacy -- and as their power increases, they have embraced empire. There is an ongoing tug-of-war for the players today, a campaign asking athletes to pick a lane, to be true activists, powerful advocates willing to critique the systems that both enrich them financially and destroy them and their people emotionally. Or, for them to seek empire, the player as owner, as mogul, straddling the seductive but impossible line of believing they can aspire to empire while fighting it. There is, too, a strong desire -- often voiced by the very people who felt they needed the players most in the 9/11 aftermath -- for them to simply return to only playing the game, to just be labor, quiet and powerless. The 20 years of the 9/11 era created a new athlete. Over the next 20, we will discover which lane they have chosen, and whether the players or the public understand the difference.