More ways to misuse 9/11

When a college football team makes "Let's Roll" its slogan, is it patriotism or profiteering?

Published August 7, 2002 7:41PM (EDT)

As the first prisoners of war began to stagger back from Vietnam in the early '70s, my friend and colleague Jeff Greenfield was driving around one of the many unidentifiable outskirts of Los Angeles when his gaze fell on one of those giant Southern California gas stations you see everywhere, with a movie-marquee-style billboard at its center. Jeff swears the proprietors had posted this message of homecoming and tribute:

"Free Lube Jobs for All POWs."

Damning with faint respect is probably as old as the country itself. If David McCullough's next biography informs me that one of the few remaining unprofiled Founding Fathers had, in 1775, christened his plow oxen "Lexington" and "Concord," I wouldn't be a bit surprised. Appropriating the transcendent for our own personal use -- whether to make a buck or enhance the meaning of our lives -- is all-American.

Still, there is something over-the-top about Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden's selection of his team's 2002 slogan, "Let's Roll."

If you've been unconscious for 11 months and can't place those two words, Bobby will be happy to fill you in. Here's how he explained it at Florida State's media day last Sunday: "That guy, on that plane, knowing they were fixin' to die and they were going to try to keep it, save the, save the White House or whatever they were gonna hit and I heard that guy, they said he said, 'Let's Roll,' I could really relate to that, and you know that's exactly the motto we're trying to get to our players, is, hey, the season has started, we got bad year last year, let's roll. And then, of course, in honor of those people who died on that plane."

"That guy, on that plane " Here's where it gets hard to be lighthearted about Bowden's choice of inspirational messages. He not only appropriated those haunting, stirring words, attributed to United Airlines Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer, for the murky depths of college football -- he couldn't even remember Beamer's name. And he didn't even call Beamer's heirs.

And of course, the message got lost along with the messenger. Bowden had already gotten it through to at least one player by the time the story hit the fan. At that same preseason media day last Sunday, quarterback Chris Rix told reporters, "This season is going to be fun. Like Coach Bowden says, 'Let's roll.'"

Free lube jobs for POWs notwithstanding, try to imagine the reaction if a college football team adopted as its team motto "We Shall Overcome," or "No Justice, No Peace," or "Remember Pearl Harbor." I have a cousin who still seethes at Woody Allen for his joke in the movie "Radio Days" in which the network debut of the character played by Mia Farrow is interrupted by the Japanese attack, to which she replies "Who is Pearl Harbor, anyway?" The interval between the bombing and the joke was 45 years -- not long enough for my cousin.

Florida State's football media director, Jeff Purinton, told me Tuesday that even though the school has produced T-shirts bearing the "Let's Roll" slogan, merchandising was not an issue here. Seventy shirts were made, for players only, and Florida State has no intention of making and selling more. He did admit, however, that "somebody else could put it on a T-shirt," and the basest of images was suddenly vivid in the imagination: tens of thousands of drunken Florida State fans, trying to sing the words "Let's Roll" to the drone of the tomahawk-chop mumble that has already made the university infamous among Native Americans and people who enjoy clear diction.

This isn't the first time "Let's Roll" and sports have intersected. In the stock-car race at Dover, Del., on Sept. 22, Bobby Labonte will drive a car painted with the phrase. The fundamental difference in this case, of course, is that income from the inevitable T-shirts, photos and other memorabilia of Labonte's "Let's Roll" paint scheme will go directly to the Todd S. Beamer Foundation. The foundation has sought to trademark "Let's Roll," not to entirely restrict it, but to create an avenue by which at least some of the money made from it can go to the children of the victims of Sept. 11. Labonte's team -- owned by former Washington Redskins' coach Joe Gibbs -- didn't raise a paintbrush until they talked to the foundation.

Purinton, the Florida State football spokesman, admitted on Tuesday that the school had made no such contact with the Beamer group. When asked for its reaction, the foundation was silent for more than 36 hours. After extensive media coverage -- including a series of blistering columns in Florida papers, and my own reports on CNN and ABC Radio -- foundation CEO Doug MacMillan phoned Bobby Bowden personally on Wednesday morning. By lunchtime, the foundation had issued a one-sentence statement: "We are honored that Florida State's football program has chosen to use Todd Beamer's quote of 'Let's roll' as a way to motivate and inspire their athletes." This left those who blanched at the football usage out on something of a limb: Continue to blanch, or shrug and mumble, "If it isn't tasteless for them, it isn't tasteless for me."

Apparently it isn't tasteless for them and, moreover, it's on the verge of being officially authorized.

MacMillan told me he had been on the road and wasn't aware of the FSU decision, or the resultant flap, until early Wednesday. "Coach Bowden and I had a great conversation," he said. "His intention is patriotic, and he's from the generation that sees 9/11 in different terms than maybe we of this generation do: 9/11 is this generation's Kennedy assassination, or Pearl Harbor, and he understands that, and we're just happy that in a country that can forget things quickly, Todd's being remembered in this way. His intention is to inspire his athletes, and our intention is that Todd's words inspire anybody."

If you smell a deal coming, your senses are working just fine. "I may go see Coach Bowden this week," MacMillan volunteered. "We have 'Let's Roll' T-shirts and caps that the foundation has made, and I'd like to give them to his players."

Will this end up like the NASCAR deal, with Florida State in effect licensed to sell T-shirts to its fans? "There could be a relationship like that long-term," MacMillan says. "It's not unforeseeable. We have relationships like that with the Labonte team, with Roberto Alomar of the Mets. I just visited with Chad Hennings of the Dallas Cowboys. We're not averse to anything that keeps the needs of the children of the victims of 9/11 in the public eye, as long as it's tastefully done."

Just keep mumbling, "If it isn't tasteless for them, it isn't tasteless for me." It hasn't worked for me yet; then again, I've only done it 300 times. Much more satisfying is the image of an FSU/Beamer Foundation deal resulting in the necessarily soiled money of big-time college football winding up actually helping pay to send some kids to college. There's an outcome the game's boosters never considered!

Thus cleansed of the onus of claim-jumping, "Let's Roll" can now join Florida State's other recent slogans: "Discipline to the Desert," "No Excuses" and "I Will Hold the Rope."

The FSU man, Purinton, also related that Bowden was "crushed" that people might think the use of "Let's Roll" was in any way inappropriate. Just how crushed was evidenced by Bowden's comments about the criticism to the Miami Herald on Wednesday: "I would say that's picky. They have to be unpatriotic to say what they say."

Of Bowden, Purinton says, "He went to ground zero. He's very patriotic."

No doubt, so was the gas station owner who offered the POWs those free lube jobs.

Is there something that afflicts those named Bowden with a bent toward controversy and tone deafness?

Now it's Bobby Bowden ("Bough-din") reaching into the memorial flame. Last week it was the Cincinnati Reds' general manager, Jim Bowden ("Bo-din").

Who's next? "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden? Just-retired hockey coach Scotty Bowman? The teenage rapper Lil' Bow Wow?

The baseball executive has received quick but minor punishment at the hands of the game's masters: a fine of $50,000. Prior to the promulgation of the penalty, a spokesman for the commissioner's office had noted that Jim Bowden's quick apology would be taken into account before judgment was passed. Bowden's defenders also pointed out that while his ex-boss Marge Schott was forced to sell the Reds after her verbal insults, and the infamous John Rocker was suspended for his panorama of anti-minority remarks, Jim Bowden's comments were extemporaneous, a horrible but all-too-human gaffe that was quickly corrected.

But there's reason to believe neither the apology nor the slip of the tongue was quite what it seemed to be.

Last Friday I obtained audiotape recordings of the informal press gaggle at which Jim Bowden equated a possible player strike with the Sept. 11 attacks, and the head of the union, Don Fehr, with the hijackers who crashed the planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center. To that point, Bowden's comments had been presented as one quote. By the time they had gained national attention through a tiny dispatch from the Associated Press, they were accompanied by the apologetic printed comments attributed to Bowden.

In fact, the tape of Bowden's remarks tells a very different story, of not one comment, but two. And they show Bowden had two chances to retract or soften his awful imagery, both of which he eschewed. Most damningly, they confirm that these weren't just "remarks" about Sept. 11, they were jokes about Sept. 11.

Late in the morning of Aug. 1, Bowden, speaking with three or four print reporters (all but one of whom carried handheld microcassette recorders) was asked about the paucity of player moves prior to baseball's trading deadline the previous day. One voice asks him if the potential of a player walkout might have made teams reluctant to deal. Bowden's answer: "My opinion on that is, there can't be a work stoppage. If the players want to strike they oughta just pick Sept. 11 because that's what it's gonna do to the game."

You'll notice there's nothing in there about Donald Fehr or planes or buildings. The conversation moves away from labor, back to the nuances of individual players and teams. Several minutes later, after an interval in which Bowden might've realized the potential hurtfulness of his Sept. 11 crack and said something -- anything -- to contain it, he is again asked about a possible strike.

Instead of distancing himself from his previous crudity, Bowden returns to it -- and embellishes it. This is audio, not video, so there will never be a way to prove that Bowden also changed his delivery from that of a buffeted executive to that of a sick comic, but the results speak for themselves. Now he says: "If they do walk out, as I said, I encourage all of them, make sure it's Sept. 11. Be symbolic about it."

The four reporters now laugh out loud. One of them claimed to me that his laugh was a nervous response to Bowden's allusion, but, regardless, it's clear Bowden has gone for the joke. When the chuckling subsides, he finishes: "Have Donald Fehr guide the plane right into the building, if that's what they want to do."

The Bowden gaggle now ends, and the Reds and Dodgers go on to play a 12-inning game. One of the reporters who interviewed Bowden, John Erardi of the Cincinnati Enquirer, returns to his office and mentions Bowden's remarks to columnist Paul Daugherty, who told me the color drained from his face when he heard it. Daugherty listens to Erardi's copy of the tape, and concludes he can't write what he feels without giving Bowden a chance to clarify himself or soften the impact of his words. Perhaps alone among Cincinnati's sportswriters, Daugherty has always gotten along with the Reds' general manager, he says. And not unlike Ted Koppel with Al Campanis years ago on "Nightline," he felt honor-bound to give Bowden a way out.

So Daugherty drove to the ballpark and, while the game was still in progress, found Bowden in his box seat. In his column the next day, he recounted the conversation:

Daugherty: In retrospect, do you think what you said this morning about a possible strike was inappropriate?

Bowden: What do you mean?

Daugherty: The analogy.

Bowden: My point, which a lot of players have made, is the game can't handle a work stoppage.

There is no apology, no light bulb going off over Bowden's head, not even a glimmer of the need for self-preservation. Bowden has now missed two opportunities to save himself -- and countless others who will read his remarks -- great pain. Only after the game ends, near dinnertime, will apologetic quotes be issued in press release form by the Reds' staff.

This was hardly the snap misjudgment and lightning-fast apology the majority of the media, and all of baseball, portrayed.

And much of baseball conspired to make sure it was portrayed that way. When my CNN employers asked me to construct a piece on the Bowden remarks for airing Aug. 2, we all thought that the players of the New York Yankees would, in particular, probably wish to react to Bowden's coarseness. The Yankees were in Anaheim to play the Angels, and an associate producer was assigned the task of arranging a camera crew and the appropriate credentials to get them on to the field.

When an Angels' media handler heard that the topic of our interviews was to be Bowden's Sept. 11 analogies, the request for credentials was denied. To paraphrase from the notes the associate producer took of the conversation, the Angels and Yankees felt the matter had already been closed by Major League Baseball, and that since the players would be working with the media a great deal in the time leading up to the anniversary of the attacks, they would rather "focus their time on more positive stories."

Well, sure. Maybe we can get a bunch of them together and have them yell, "Let's Roll."

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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