A Matter of Priorities

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Tuffy Leemans Day at the Polo Grounds began like any other NFL Sunday in 1941, with the exception of the gold watch and $1,500 in defense bonds presented to the New York Giants’ star fullback before the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers kicked off the final game of the regular season.

The Giants had already clinched the Eastern Division championship, but the Dodgers were aiming for a season sweep of their cross-town rivals, an attraction that drew a crowd of 55,051, the largest in the NFL that season.

But the action on Dec. 7 was interrupted by a series of curious public-address announcements. As the New York Times reported: “An ominous buzzing was heard around Coogan’s Bluff after an announcement over the public-address system informed Colonel William J. Donovan that he was being paged by Washington.”


Then, later during the game, there was this:

“All Navy men in the audience are ordered to report to their posts immediately. All Army men are to report to their posts tomorrow morning. This is important.”

America was at war. And America’s pastimes began the awkward task of knowing and finding their proper place in a time of national crisis and mourning, a fine line that has been trampled more than once during the subsequent 60 years.

One week after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Green Bay and Chicago were back on the football field, because the Packers and the Bears had tied for first place in Western Division and the NFL decreed that one of them would have to play the Giants for the league championship Dec. 21. The Bears advanced but the public, in no mood for Wrigley Field celebrations while soldiers were preparing to die in the Pacific, displayed a somber restraint lacking in the league office. Only 13,341 turned out to watch the Giants defeat the Bears for the title.

College football had already concluded its season, save for the Jan. 1 bowl games. But the U.S. Army, guarding against possible Japanese bombing raids along the West Coast, canceled all large public gatherings in the region, including a Rose Bowl matchup between Pacific Coast Conference champion Oregon State and the nation’s second-ranked team, Duke.

Duke Coach Wallace Wade, however, was intent on playing the game, so he proposed moving it to Durham, N.C. On Dec. 15, Oregon State and Rose Bowl officials accepted Wade’s offer and for the only time in its history, the Rose Bowl was held outside Pasadena-Oregon State winning, 20-16.

As World War II tore into 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that such national diversions as baseball and football continue as normally as possible. Which ultimately proved impossible. The military draft absorbed so many NFL players that the league considered shutting down until the war’s conclusion. The league played on, but several teams did not. In 1943, the Cleveland Rams suspended operations and the Pittsburgh Steelers merged with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 1945, the NFL Dodgers folded.


The war claimed the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games, and baseball’s 1945 All-Star game, the result of a U.S. Office of Defense Transportation request that all sports teams cut their travel by 25%. Baseball’s owners, seeking to keep their regular season intact, voted instead to sacrifice the All-Star game as part of their war-effort cutbacks.

Roosevelt believed sports served a vital function during war and national crises, providing the public a needed stress-release valve.

Winston Churchill held the same view, which is why he ordered cinemas and music halls to remain open in England during World War II.

But when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday in November 1963, debate raged as to whether football ought to take the weekend off to allow a country to grieve.

Several college football conferences considered this a reasonable request and postponed the next day’s games a week-including the Army-Navy rivalry, featuring eventual Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach of Navy.

The American Football League also decided to postpone its schedule of Sunday games.

But the NFL, in a move that would haunt Commissioner Pete Rozelle the remainder of his life, opted to play that Sunday, two days after the death of the president. The reason, according to the NFL spin doctors of the day, was to preserve “normalcy.”


Many, however, felt the league was acting in its own self-interest-tactless at best, disrespectful at worst. Years later, Rozelle would call the decision the biggest regret of his career.

Similarly, the NCAA drew harsh criticism for failing to postpone its 1981 men’s basketball title game hours after President Ronald Reagan had been shot. That evening, the highly anticipated matchup between Indiana and North Carolina was to go head-to-head against the Academy Awards.

That evening, with the president lying in a hospital bed, Bob Knight’s Hoosiers took the court against James Worthy and the Tar Heels. The Oscars, meanwhile, were rescheduled for the following night.

Twice during the last 30 years, terrorism has interrupted the Summer Olympics, but only briefly.

In Munich in 1972, Palestinian terrorists invaded the athletes’ village and killed 11 Israeli athletes-most in a bloody failed rescue attempt by German police at the city airport. IOC President Avery Brundage suspended the Games for 34 hours, a memorial service was held and then, the runners and hurdlers were instructed to once again take their marks. In 1996 in Atlanta, a pipe bomb exploding in Centennial Park killed one woman and injured more than 100. Hours later, however, Canada’s Donovan Bailey was off and running and winning the men’s 100 meters.

It took a natural disaster to shut down the World Series. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, striking moments before the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s were to start Game 3 of the Series, caused baseball officials to huddle under candlelight in darkened hotel ballrooms to determine what course of action was proper. Dozens died in the earthquake; a freeway collapsed. Commissioner Fay Vincent determined that the game should step aside in deference to the dead and suffering, waiting 11 days before the teams played Game 3.


Two years later, war broke out in the Persian Gulf one week before the Super Bowl. Another Bush was in the White House in 1991 and that January, he decreed that the game go on.

“I am not going to be held a captive in the White House by Saddam Hussein of Iraq,” President George Bush said then, “and you can make a note of that.”

So with metal detectors cluttering the entrances to Tampa Stadium and television monitors on press row turned to CNN for battle developments, the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants provided the nation its respite from the bloodshed happening half a world away.

There is, however, no reference point for Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon. There is no precedent, no consensus response for turning on the news and watching the twin towers of the World Trade Center disintegrate before your eyes.

Major league baseball moved quickly to postpone all 15 of its games Tuesday-the first time, aside from work stoppages, that baseball has postponed a full day’s schedule of regular-season games since D-Day in 1944.

Other sports, including golf, horse racing and soccer, also canceled or delayed competitions this week.


In the view of baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, it was the only response possible.

“I was stunned by the JFK assassination and it took me a long time to get over that,” Selig said at a news conference. “I didn’t think that was possible. The earthquake in ‘89, the World Series, that was a tragedy.

“But this is incomprehensible. The greatest country in the history of the world being attacked. So all of this doesn’t mean much today.”