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What place sports when a tragedy strikes?

There has always been a bit of disconnect between the games we play and times of distress. Sports equate with “fun” and are classified as “entertainment.” So when bad things happen, ought the games to be stopped? Are they appropriate when their relative unimportance is resoundingly underscored by the bitter sweep of harsh reality? Should we be happily at play when and where great sadness abounds?

These are hardly questions that drive philosophers daft, merely the stuff of common sense. Yet the answers have not always been clear while consensus remains elusive.

In a society that ascribes far more meaning to athletics than can ever be conveyed by final scores, few have much time even for the questions. Yet they’ve persisted over the last near century and a half that highly structured and organized sport – professional and amateur – has served as the bedrock of our popular culture.

Duringthe deeply disturbing Marathon tragedy there has been widespread insistence that sports helped get us through the ordeal by providing forums where outrage could be vented and resilience demonstrated and spirits renewed and, in the end, resolution celebrated. Once again, the kingdom of sport is mighty happy to take a bow for all that. But isn’t it fair to wonder – once again – if such explanations are not too simplistic and such lofty claims more than a bit exaggerated.

At the least, it renews a time-honored debate. Looking back over the years it is one that has been consistently fascinating.

These questions were first raised during the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century when baseball was the only truly organized game in town and the suspension of the National League season was proposed to presumably allow a sharper focus on the vanquishing of our foes. But among our many wars, this one was relatively short, one-sided, and easy, so before the argument could fully develop, it was over.

However, the fact that the season hadn’t been suspended would become a factor in 1917 when America edged into World War I. This time the demand for baseball to shut down was more strenuous. The secretary of war had issued a “work or fight” edict and Newton D. Baker did not consider playing baseball to be “work.” He ordered ballplayers to either enlist in the Army or work in a defense plant. MLB resisted, claiming the Spanish-American War as a precedent.

In the end, a compromise was worked out and it was rather silly. Players were obliged (among other things) to do one hour of daily military drills conducted by Regular Army NCOs on the field before every game. They marched around with baseball bats over their shoulders. It was hardly boot camp, but it satisfied Baker. Among those accused of shirking such meager duty was a young Red Sox lefty-hurler named Babe Ruth. For years after the war the illustrious Bambino and boxing-great Jack Dempsey ranked high among the jocks bearing the stigma of having been accused “slackers.”

There was no such controversy in World War II. Only a month after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt declared: “I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer and harder hours than ever before. That means they ought to have a chance for recreation. Baseball provides a recreation that does not last over two hours and can be got for very little cost.”

If it seems lame now, for baseball, which was, then far and away the nation’s major sport, it was a fabulous endorsement. Moreover, all the games were thus reprieved, with all contributing mightily to the war-effort.

All of which hugely benefited the entire sport’s industry and set the stage for fabulous growth after the war. But it was also a shrewd move on FDR’s part as an element of war policy. The country had accepted conflict as inescapable but the distaste for foreign entanglements remained strong. Recognizing the war would be long, nasty, and brutally taxing, FDR understood that diversions, distractions, and a sustained sense of the normal would be vital to national morale and believed sports could serve that purpose best. If the quality of the games wasn’t high during the war, it was nonetheless among baseball’s finest hours.

Interesting how different were those times. Pearl Harbor was attacked, you’ll recall, on a Sunday and the terrible news was exploding on radio air- waves across the nation just as the NFL’s weekly games were beginning. With martial law being immediately declared, and troops taking position around government buildings and major industrial sites all over the land, the NFL’s full slate of games merrily continued uninterrupted. Two Sundays later, with the nation mobilizing fiercely, the Bears met the Giants for the championship, with Chicago winning, 37-9.

It’s not just war that has raised the question over the years. Unforgettably, it was the Kennedy assassination in November 1963, that stirred the greatest of the controversies. With the nation totally traumatized, all the games, leagues, and sporting contractors – big and small, professional and amateur – scrambled furiously to adjust. But not the most lordly of the lot, the National Football League.

Equally unforgettable were the pious intonations of NFL Commissioner Palmer (Pete) Rozelle declaring that the dead young president would have dearly wanted the lads to play. So a full slate of games proceeded hideously two days after the president had been shot, even as he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, on the very day before his emotionally shattering funeral. It may have been the only dumb thing Rozelle ever did, but it was no less monumental.

The NFL survived Rozelle’s blunder because football’s sky-rocketing popularity allowed it. But it did whip up a whole new round of fierce debate about whether games remain relevant when grave hardship and/or civic turmoil rears. Five years later, during the tormented spring of 1968 as uproar was flaring in American urban enclaves, the discussion was again bestirred with professional teams again having to adjust.
In subsequent years, as the sports industry boomed on the way to its present humongous dimensions, the discussion would gradually fade. We would have a full-fledged constitutional crisis called Watergate in the early 1970’s and it would have no effect on so much as a period or an inning of any team’s play. And then came ‘”9-11.”

The terrorist attack on New York City in September of 2011 rattled many conventional attitudes, the least important doubtless having to do with how we view the games we play. But in fairness, the role of sport back in that black September was memorable. Moreover, on that terrible occasion, everyone got it right.

Games were postponed wholesale and schedules turned upside down by all leagues and when they finally resumed, it was with proper deference to the very painful mood of the moment. Ceremonies were touching and dignified as a whole new generation of smart young sports executives demonstrated they fully understood how far beyond the fields of play the games now extend.

The atrocity last week in Boston does not compare in scale or scope to the atrocity back then in New York, although you can tell that to the victims along Boylston Street and their families, if you wish. If “9-11” changed our world, the Marathon mayhem dramatized how much it had changed, and how random and capricious the carnage can be, and, above all, how mindless is its inspiration.

It is not the first such madness to beset sport. The Munich Olympics some four decades ago has that awful distinction. But has it changed the games irreparably? Soon enough, we’ll find out. Alas!    

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