The world of sports has resumed its games. But the whole tone that surrounds them, the way we view athletes and even the way they see themselves, has begun to change. Nothing is quite the same. Some things may be very different for a long time.
In a day, we went from sports in the context of a frivolous, flippant gilded-age boom to sports in the context of terrorism, economic apprehension and, perhaps, impending war. In a blink, we've gone from games in a time of fun to games in a period that's suddenly dead serious. Word War II announced its coming over several years. This transformation came in an hour.
Since Sept. 11, the way America reacts to every aspect of its life has come under internal review. We look at familiar places, people and institutions with altered eyes. After what has happened, and considering what may still unfold, we reweigh and revalue all the pieces of our normal life. Including sports.
What is appropriate now? What will be tolerated? What will be admired? What kind of people and behaviors will rise in our esteem? Or fall? Where does the athlete fit in this new warlike era?
For example, Michael Jordan was expected to have a news conference this week, presumably to announce that he would return to playing. Before Sept. 11, such a news conference would have been a national event, worthy of balloons and headlines rivaling the first man on the moon.
Now, there likely will be no news conference. Such a celebration of oneself -- "I'm back!" or even "I'm not back" -- would seem inappropriate. Whatever Jordan decides, and whenever he reveals it, he'll play down the announcement out of respect for the dead and the grieving.
It's more than that. Jordan knows he lives in a severely altered culture. Words like "hero" and "courage" have reverted to their original meanings. Athletes, even the greatest, are returning to life size. Firemen who climb into burning buildings, only to die, are courageous heroes. Athletes are not.
For every sport, the ground has shifted. Look at baseball. How can owners and players consider a work stoppage when the country has come through this? The answer is simple. They can't. And won't. It's off the table. Even if they don't know it yet. They're patriotic people. Once they think through the implications, they'll realize it. Negotiations will be bumped back a year.
You don't need an economist to see which way the Dow blows. There isn't an owner or a league in sports that isn't battening down the financial hatches. The big paydays are over for a while.
What would have been a reasonable demand a year ago isn't anymore. The word is on the street. If the NFL refs hadn't gotten on board this week, they can stay out all year. As for the Halperns in sports these days, they would be wise to imagine the fear in the hearts of owners with large debt, shrinking assets and customers who haven't decided if they think it's safe to sit in big crowds.
The money pie is getting smaller. Take a slice while you can.
While much has changed, one thing hasn't. America still loves sports; as long as the people who play the games and own the teams act in ways that are proper to the times. We've never needed our games more. Even though they've never seemed less vital.
When life is suddenly more serious more of the time, there is also more need for it to be fun at least some of the time. That's why my family will be at a college football game this weekend. We need it. And deserve it, too. Not like a New York fireman deserves it. Or a medic at the Pentagon. But enough.
Sports is back, thank heaven. Our games have changed already and will change more. But they've never felt more welcome.
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