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Return to Normalcy Still a Far-Off Concept

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On this weekend without the Pac-10, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the SEC, the ACC and the NFL, football players and coaches were actually seen weeping.

On CNN/SI, Atlanta Falcon Coach Dan Reeves shook his head, let out an anguished sigh and tried to choke out a few words as his eyes welled up.

“It’s just ... the emotions were unbelievable,” he finally said. “And

On Fox Sports Net New England, Patriot guard Joe Andruzzi gulped hard, bowed his head and wiped his eyes with a huge right hand.

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“He ... got out ... just in time,” he said, referring to his brother Jim, a firefighter at the disaster scene at the World Trade Center.

On Fox Sports Net New York, where Jet and Giant fans turn for updates on their favorite teams, there were no scores, no interviews, no audio at all.

The only image was that of an American flag at half-staff, waving gently and silently in the breeze, above a news ticker crawl at the bottom of the screen:

“MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL POSTPONED THROUGH THE WEEKEND.”

“NFL HAS CALLED OFF GAMES FOR WEEK 2.”

“NHL PRESEASON GAMES SCHEDULED THROUGH SUNDAY WILL NOT BE PLAYED.”

After four days of wrestling with what’s-the-right-thing-to-do in the aftermath of an unprecedented terrorist attack on U.S. soil, American sports and the networks that televise them spent a long weekend living with the across-the-board decision to take a break from balls and games.

CBS, Fox and ABC, networks that ordinarily devote large blocks of Saturday and Sunday programming to football, instead sent it over to their news desks. Sunday morning on Fox, the faces of Howie Long and Terry Bradshaw were replaced by those of U.S. Senators John Kerry and John McCain, discussing possible government responses to the attack.

But what of the outlets specializing in sports-ESPN, Fox Sports Net, DirecTV? For them, live NFL football was taken off the table, but they still had access to their next preferred option: canned NFL football.

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It was a big weekend for NFL Films. From late Saturday night to Sunday afternoon, ESPN became “NFL Yearbooks On Parade”-a 30-minute season review of the 2000 Dallas Cowboys followed by the 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers followed by the 2000 New Orleans Saints and all the way through the league. ESPN2 rolled out “SportsCentury” biographies on Johnny Unitas, Red Grange, Jerry Rice and Jim Brown.

Fox Sports Net rolled out “Beyond the Glory” studies of Deion Sanders and Kurt Warner. DirecTV, its customary “NFL Sunday Ticket” package reduced from 13 games to zero, also tapped the NFL Films library, running “NFL Flashback” highlight packages of old playoff games while subscribers read and re-read a crawling message from NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue:

“We in the National Football League have decided that our priorities for this weekend are to pause, grieve and reflect.”

And then, as a not-so-subtle reminder to stay tuned, the statement went on:

“On Sunday, Sept. 23, the NFL and its players and coaches will return stronger than ever and resume our playing schedule.”

It was also a big weekend for mixed messages. ESPN, which grew up and grew serious with responsible, reflective coverage of the attack and its aftermath, ran commercials plugging its “GameDay” college football package urging viewers to enlist so they could keep track of “Saturday’s warriors.”

On “SportsCenter” Saturday night, New York Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman talked of the need to get back on the playing field because, “There’s no question that there’s an obligation [for us] to help the nation to some degree get some distraction, get a little bit of time away and get back to some normalcy.”

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A reasonable sentiment. After four days of wincing at the television, through one heartbreaking image after another, a late-night Jerry West biography felt like an hour-long detour to some faraway emotional oasis.

Yet on this weekend, what did sports have to offer by way of diversion?

Alex Zanardi, the two-time CART champion, has his legs amputated after his car was obliterated in a crash at a German racing competition that had been renamed this week the “American Memorial 500.”

Tank Younger, one of the great names in Los Angeles Ram history, died.

Eight members of the University of Wyoming cross-country team were killed in a head-on automobile collision with a pickup truck.

Even the distraction was no longer a distraction. Sunday night, sports commentators sounded almost relieved to report that major league baseball would resume its regular season today.

But will the return of these games really signal a return to “normalcy?”

“Super-terrorism is here to stay,” Rinaldo Campana, a former FBI counter-terrorism agent, told ESPN. “Who is next? Is it possibly a stadium? Definitely, a stadium [under attack] has a high probability of a high number of casualties. God forbid that a plane would be piloted into a stadium and the catastrophe you would have.”

Normal, even inside the ballparks where we play our games, may never be normal again.

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