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How 9/11 Changed The Sports Industry's Relationship With Patriotism And Activism

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sports and patriotism were connected long before the Sept. 11 attacks. But soon after that day 20 years ago, the two became indelibly linked. Sports stadiums, arenas and fields became places where people grieved together and expressed their love for a shaken country. Over the next two decades, that mix of sports and patriotism evolved and became more complicated, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Twenty years ago, Bud Selig was nervous. As major league baseball commissioner, he shut down the game after 9/11. That was the easy part. But the decision of when to start up again, that had him thinking about a former NFL commissioner and the regret Pete Rozelle had for a decision made decades earlier.

BUD SELIG: Pete Rozelle, who I have great respect for, said his greatest mistake was playing on the weekend that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated.

GOLDMAN: Selig OK'd baseball's restart for the Monday after 9/11. That day, he anxiously settled in to watch on TV. Before the St. Louis Cardinals game, legendary Cards broadcaster Jack Buck addressed the crowd and asked the question weighing heavily on the commissioner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK BUCK: Should we be here? Yes.

(CHEERING)

SELIG: For that, the crowd rose with a standing ovation. And I started crying actually, I don't mind telling you. And I knew then that it was OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) God bless America.

GOLDMAN: Among Selig's reopening mandates, "God Bless America" would become a regular part of games. Fans and players sang along. Flags waved everywhere. Sporting events big and small became much-needed places for those who wanted to cheer and mourn together. Athletes embraced their special role in the catharsis. The New York Yankees' stirring ride through the baseball playoffs ended with a World Series loss.

After the final game, an appreciative New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani visited the Yankees' clubhouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUDY GIULIANI: The last three weeks were absolutely great for the city of New York. It lifted our spirits. It meant a lot for our economy. So the players have accomplished a tremendous amount. And they've accomplished a great deal. And they've brought us so much that they should all feel that they've really done the job for New York City.

GOLDMAN: William Astore, a 20-year Air Force veteran and sports fan, embraced those early days - the rousing rhetoric, the coming together after calamity. But for Astore, things started to turn at a stadium concession stand.

WILLIAM ASTORE: I remember after 9/11 going to a baseball game, buying an ice cream cone.

GOLDMAN: That was wrapped in paper with the American flag on it.

ASTORE: As a military officer, I really respect the American flag. I don't want the American flag on a piece of paper that I'm going to discard and get ice cream all over it. And I think everything can be overdone, including even patriotism.

(SOUNDBITE OF JETS ROARING)

GOLDMAN: Military flyovers, enormous flags covering entire fields, athletes wearing camouflage uniforms and caps that fans still can buy online - these became a staple at games, even as the shock of 9/11 receded. The show of muscular patriotism, says Astore, a commentator for the Eisenhower Media Network, became less about catharsis and more about paid military recruiting.

ASTORE: For me, you know, patriotism, if it has any meaning, is something that is spontaneous. It's not something that's orchestrated, not something paid for with millions of dollars by the Defense Department.

GOLDMAN: A 2015 Senate report revealed DOD payments of nearly $7 million of public money, from the Pentagon to the NFL and other leagues, for what the report called paid patriotism - everything from on-field military swearing-in ceremonies to performances of "God Bless America." The NFL paid back more than $700,000 to the government. And Congress banned paid patriotism in late 2015. A year later, sports stadiums again became a patriotic flashpoint.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: As the crowd and players stand, you can see Kaepernick kneeling on the sidelines.

GOLDMAN: Perhaps more than any sports figure since 9/11, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick made us think about patriotism. Should love of country always be unquestioned? Kaepernick's kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against Black people and social inequality - it's being repeated more and more.

And Marcus Newsome says, that is patriotic. Newsome was in the army for 12 years. And in 2016, he started the hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick.

MARCUS NEWSOME: I'm glad that people are using kneeling as a vehicle to bring attention to how society treats its marginalized people.

GOLDMAN: Many, though, were not glad. Before the pandemic emptied stadiums, they were sometimes houses divided. As fans now creep back, those divisions linger, along with the screeching jets overhead, the flags and the songs.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.