On April 6th, 1917 the United States of America, against the wishes of the majority of its population, entered World War I when Congress declared war on the German Empire. Five days later, Major League Baseball started its professional season, knowing full well that the season would be shortened due to the War Department’s “Work or Fight Rule” — a rule stipulating that all males of draft age must join the military or work in a war-related job — that would take effect after Labor Day.
The 1917 World Series started in September between the Chicago Cubs and a Boston Red Sox team whose roster had been depleted by the War Draft. So, among a backdrop of mass riots across the country, a bombing of the Federal building in Chicago, and the growing list of war dead being printed in newspapers day after day, the series to decide baseball’s championship began. Boston’s Babe Ruth and Chicago’s Hippo Vaughn (yes, Hippo) were in an epic pitchers’ duel but, given the very serious real-world issues happening outside of the game, the crowd was ambivalent towards the whole affair. However, that changed during the 7th inning stretch, when the Navy band - a special guest/marketing ploy to bring in interest to the game - decided to play the reworked version of a song that most people at the time, hated: The Star-Spangled Banner.
Though it wasn’t the national anthem at the time, the players on the field took off their hats when Red Sox third baseman, Fred Thomas, an active-duty sailor at the time, snapped off a salute towards the lone American flag flying in the corner. The crowd, heavily populated by wounded soldiers back from France, noticed this and saluted as well. A small group of civilians near the Red Sox bench began singing along, eventually cajoling the entire stadium to sing the words and burst out into cheers at its conclusion. Because it was so well received and attendance was so low, they decided to keep the gimmick going and advertised the playing of the song at the beginning of every game afterwards to entice people to come to the remaining World Series games. Thus, the tradition of playing the Star Spangled Banner before sporting events was born.
When the Imperial Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the last thing anyone was thinking at that exact moment was, “but what about the sports?”. However, before President Roosevelt made his impassioned speech to Congress on December 11th, he met with another group of decision makers on December 8th: the Major League Baseball owners. Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (yuuuup!) asked for the President’s input on whether MLB should have a 1942 season given that the country was at war and the draft was taking most guys who populated MLB rosters. The President’s response was an enthusiastic, “yes” and in a letter known as the, “Green Light Letter” Roosevelt stated, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”
On December 21st, 1941 the NFL Championship game would be played, featuring New York Giants linebacker Jack Lummus — Lummus would be killed on Iwo Jima three years later, leading his company on a charge to a Japanese machine gun nest in an act that received the Medal of Honor. And three weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Rose Bowl was played in Durham, North Carolina where Oregon State defeated Duke 20-16.
President Roosevelt so believed in sports continuing through the war that part of the War Department’s budget was siphoned off for sports funding, and despite the warning from his closest advisors, he showed up a record eleven times to throw out ceremonial first pitches. Since the presidential ceremonial first pitch was started by William Howard Taft in 1910, every sitting president (except the current one) has put life — and reputation — on the line to continue this tradition, regardless of current events.
September 11th, 2001. Most of us were around for that one. Some of you weren’t, but you’ve seen the videos, read the stories, and heard the tales of everything that happened on — and the ramifications after — that day.
Major League Baseball, the NFL, and all college sports cancelled their games until September 21st, when the New York Mets played the Atlanta Braves in the first sporting event after the attacks.
New York won 3-2 and began the, “we’re not OK but we’re going to be OK,” phrase of getting back to normalcy.
Americans have a proud tradition of playing sports to show that everything’s fine, even — and especially — when it’s not. Whether it’s an act of defiance or an act of burying our heads in the sand, playing games means so much more to our society and our collective psyche that the act of not having them might have more of an impact than the reason for not having them in the first place. Add to that the immense amount of value Americans place upon their teams — represented by the time, effort, and money that we put into these events — that there was no question American sports administrators would find a way to get their products back on the field after the brief quarantine of spring and summer.
The difference in 2020, however, is that we’re not being targeted by terrorists, we’re not being attacked by a fascist empire overseas, and we’re not fighting someone else’s war in Europe; we’re under siege from ourselves. Whatever your views are on police violence, racial inequality, fanatic militias, the power of businesses, riots, fake news, climate change, wildfires, hurricanes - all major, history-making things that are happening right now - it’s the pandemic that’s been raging in the country since March that is the biggest danger. A pandemic that has shined a light into every imperfection this country has while a federal government does nothing but encourage state governments to come up with their own rules while the population has no idea what to do or what to believe. However, the enemy, as it were, is ourselves; not because of our disagreements over everything with each other — although that certainly doesn’t help — but that an invisible enemy that spreads through close human contact and can be in anyone is still out there. We can defend our shores from pretty much any outside human threat in order to play a sport; the defense against a virus is to do nothing but isolate, which our culture and society won’t allow.
So, yes, playing sports is the American answer to times of crisis. And, no, it shouldn’t be the answer to this crisis because the way to defeat it isn’t to shoot it with guns or blow it up with planes but to stay away from other people. But sports is how we recover, sports is how we move on, sports is our way of saying, “we’re not OK but we’re going to be OK.”
And I’ll fully admit: I didn’t think we should play games because I didn’t want to force anybody to do anything for my entertainment if we didn’t have the capability to protect them via frequent, accurate testing. But the players who are still here want to play, the testing is fast and accurate, and the games are going to be played. So I will also admit: I’m starting to get excited for SEC football.
Just remember: Missouri isn’t going to be very good this year. Even in a non-COVID world, this season would have been a slugfest to six wins, and now Mizzou took out their most likely wins and replaced them with Alabama and LSU. The Tigers’ offensive line has only 11 scholarship guys and most of them are underclassmen; the best receivers are two transfers, one who’s maybe-kind-of injured; the quarterback hasn’t played in a year and wasn’t all that impressive when he did play; there’s still no proven pass rush on the outside; the corners are flushed with youth; and, oh yeah, at least 7 guys are going to be out for the first game because of COVID.
But you know what? I don’t care if they lose. I can confidently say that Missouri football will fail in contributing to the living hell that is life in 2020. My life is so much worse now than it was six months ago — as I’m sure it is for all of you — that I just can’t get to the point of caring that Dom Gicinto drops a pass or Cameron Wilkins whiffs on a tackle that allows a 90-yard touchdown. I’m glad I have my health, I’m thankful that we get to watch our team play, and I’m grateful that our new coach gets a year where, basically, nothing matters, and he can install scheme and culture in a locker room that badly needs both.
Here’s to sports: the thing that tries to unite us, help us recover, and gives us something to focus on outside of our own lives. Here’s to football: maybe the most American of sports, and the cash cow that lets the rest of our society run smoothly. And here’s to the Missouri football players and you faithful of Rock M Nation: this season will be unlike anything else we’ve seen; let’s appreciate it for what it is.