Ten years ago, on the first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the NFL did something truly heroic and generous: nothing. The league willingly ate millions of dollars and cancelled the games out of respect for the unfolding tragedy. As 9/11 morphed into a decade-long “Global War on Terror,” the league has, to put it mildly, failed to show similar restraint. From the now ubiquitous presence of military flyovers and honor guards at every game, to the armed forces recruitment stations set up outside preseason contests, to having war-gourmands like General David Petraeus toss the coin before the Super Bowl, to staging Fox’s NFL pregame show from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan (with Terry, Howie and the gang dressed in fatigues), the league has treated our era of endless war as an odious exercise in corporate branding.
This Sunday, the NFL season opens in earnest on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks and the league, like John Boehner finding an abandoned pack of unfiltered smokes, just can’t control itself. Teams will be going all out to commemorate that horrific day ten years ago when nearly 3,000 people were killed in DC, Pennsylvania and New York City. If you think this anniversary should be remembered with somber soft voices and an air of dignity, you are going to want to keep your distance from NFL Sunday or you will lose your lunch.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, on ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning, said without a hint of humility, that the NFL will aim this Sunday to “help the country heal.” How will this healing take place? As the Associated Press reported, “Pregame tributes will be synchronized on CBS and Fox telecasts and shown on video boards in each stadium hosting games. Coaches, players and local first responders will hold field-length American flags for the playing of the national anthem.” The AP also reported that players, coaches and the sideline rabble will be compelled to wear a specially customized NFL 9/11 ribbon. The official “NFL 9/11 logo” will also be on the field of every game.
Roger Goodell’s office says that this pomp is aimed to “unite fans to recognize those who lost their lives, honor the families who lost loved ones, and salute the American spirit, the early responders on 9/11, and other heroes that contributed to the nation’s recovery.” If you are one of the 25 million Americans looking for work, or related to one of the hundreds of thousands of troops stationed overseas in three theaters of war, you might wonder what recovery Goodell is referencing.
The last decade has more resembled a sweat-soaked fever-dream than anything resembling a “recovery.” The statistics boggle the mind. More than 6,000 US troops have been killed. Over 550,000 soldiers have put in claims for disability. Among those unfortunate enough to have been born in the countries the United States has invaded and occupied, the death toll has been estimated to be as much as one million lives lost. The current number of war refugees and displaced persons reaches almost 8 million people. The economic cost to the United States has been estimated by Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to be as high as $5 trillion. Now everyone in Washington, DC, is shocked that a decade of tax cuts and war has led to record deficits, and working people are told to “tighten our belts.” It’s been an awful decade of lies and loss, and its reality will go unacknowledged this Sunday.
In all the scurrying to make sure “9/11 NFL Sunday” is a day to remember, one name is strikingly absent from the press release trumpeting the day’s events: Pat Tillman. After 9/11, Tillman took the extraordinary step of leaving the NFL to join the Army Rangers. His experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan pushed him to question the official rational for the “Global War on Terror.” He read antiwar authors. He told friends that he felt the war in Iraq was “f—in’ illegal.” Then he died at the hands of his fellow Rangers in an instance of what was deemed “friendly fire.” The Pentagon and the Bush administration hid this reality from Pat Tillman’s family. The NFL, for its part, inaugurated a USO center at Bagram Airfield in Pat Tillman’s name without hinting at the complicated realities of either Tillman’s service or his betrayal at the hands of those he trusted. The NFL’s failure to highlight Tillman in this Sunday’s 9/11 tributes is in some ways a relief, but it also reads like an act of cowardice. His story is a polarizing one that Roger Goodell wants to avoid on this day of “unity.”
But ten years along from 9/11, unity is hardly the watchword of the moment. I spoke with Rory Fanning, a former US Army Ranger turned antiwar activist, who served with Pat and walked across the country in his memory. I asked Rory what he would like to see the NFL do to commemorate the decade anniversary of that fateful day. He said, “I would ask the NFL for an hour of silence for the hundreds of thousands killed after 9/11 in recognition of the criminally disproportionate response to that day.” If Roger Goodell must do something, that sounds pretty dead-on. It certainly feels more right than the queasy mix of war, sport and choreographed remembrance that Goodell has planned.