On Thursday I praised New Orleans Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks for displaying a lack of self-absorption rare in pro athletes by saying that the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, which drove him, his teammates and their families from New Orleans, is "not a 9/11 deal, but it has the feeling of it."
I'm still impressed with Brooks for displaying an understanding that people other than himself have problems too, which was the point of the item. But through the course of the day I came to agree with the several readers who wrote me to say that Hurricane Katrina is, in fact, "a 9/11 deal."
I now believe I was wrong to write that it isn't, and I've become so convinced of this idea that I'm now wondering why sports haven't been suspended the way they were after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Why did the Saints have to go through with their meaningless practice game against the Oakland Raiders Thursday night? Why hasn't baseball called off games the way it did four years ago? Did the world really need that Central Florida-South Carolina tilt, or Oregon-Houston, literally a few steps away from where officials were about to start turning refugees away from the Astrodome?
I don't know. Maybe. After 9/11, it felt obvious to most people, including me, that sports should take a break. Mark McGwire called the idea of playing in the days after the attacks "absolutely asinine. This is the worst thing that can ever happen to the country and people are worried about making decisions on playing sporting events."
Not everyone agreed, but McGwire was certainly speaking for the mainstream. The attacks happened on a Tuesday, and all sports were suspended through the weekend.
It doesn't feel obvious to everyone that sports should cool it for a few days now. I haven't even heard it suggested, and it didn't occur to me. Maybe it should have.
"I was very disappointed with your article on the hurricane," wrote reader Eliav Decter. "We don't yet know whether the death toll of Katrina will match that of 9/11, but it certainly may, and in contrast to 9/11, an entire city is physically devastated. Thousands of people are stranded without food, water or sanitation, and chaos seems to rule the city streets."
"New York is proudly acclaimed a survivor city but the level of destruction in New Orleans is much more severe," wrote Fran Rosen, another reader. "As a disaster, it seems to me that Katrina certainly meets (and probably dwarfs) the effects of the destruction on 9/11. Many, many people along the Gulf will lose their homes and livelihoods."
On Thursday, some other athletes spoke up. After winning a match at the U.S. Open, Andre Agassi said, "It's like 9/11. How long can you watch it without being truly devastated? It's a tragedy. It's terrible. You've got families starving, no food, no water, no electricity, nobody can be rescued. Nobody knows where to go, what to do."
After winning her match, Lindsay Davenport said, "You feel so removed. It's in the same country, yet it seems like everyone here is concentrating on tennis."
I understand how Hurricane Katrina presents a different dynamic than 9/11 did. What happened in 2001 was an armed attack on our country by an enemy. No matter where we lived, Americans took it personally, felt that we had suffered a blow.
Even people who didn't know a soul who'd been killed, injured or displaced by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania felt grief, anger, fear and a thousand other emotions.
With a natural disaster, those not in the affected part of the country or with personal connections there feel sympathy. It's different.
Maybe it shouldn't be. Maybe we should have the same visceral reaction to death and destruction in our country, or even anywhere in the world, regardless of the cause.
And while I don't think it explains the different reaction, I don't think it's totally beside the point that the victims of 9/11 that we saw on TV, so many Lower Manhattan workers, were diverse but mostly middle class, while the people we see suffering in New Orleans this week are overwhelmingly black and poor.
But human nature is what it is, and the fact is we don't react the same way to every disaster everywhere in the world or everywhere in the country. I suspect if we did our lives would be unsustainable. We'd be paralyzed with grief every few days.
Still, when I see that the University of Alabama is asking its football fans to give up their hotel rooms in Tuscaloosa this weekend to make room for evacuees, I can't help wondering if the world really needs that Alabama-Middle Tennessee game to be played on Saturday.
With visitors bureaus and relief agencies in Tallahassee, Fla., scrambling to find room for hurricane refugees, I wonder if that Florida A&M-Delaware clash couldn't be postponed from Saturday, or the Florida State-Miami game from Monday.
Yeah, even an "important" game like Florida State vs. Miami.
That Houston-Oregon game at Reliant Stadium Thursday night ended just a few hours before authorities began turning away busloads of New Orleans evacuees from the Astrodome, which is next door.
Could Reliant Stadium been used to house or stage refugees? I don't know. But there's just something of a "let them eat cake" element to playing ball next door to such a massive, and failing, aid effort. If the people have no homes to go to and no way to know if some relatives are alive or dead, let them watch football.
I know we can't stop the world for every disaster. I'm aware of the argument, most famously made by Franklin Roosevelt about baseball during World War II, that sports can play an important role in troubled times. But it doesn't feel like that's what's been happening this week. It feels like the games are just going on.
Honestly I haven't resolved in my own mind whether sports should have stopped for this disaster, though I think they should have in the areas affected by either the storm or the flood of refugees. But I think we should have thought about it and talked about it, and I'm among those who failed in not doing so.
Previous column: "Not a 9/11 deal"
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