Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. It was also the inaugural week of the 2016 NFL season.
Oddly enough, it seems like patriotism and what our flag stands for — and whether we choose to stand for it — is at the forefront of the nation’s conscience. It’s there because of one man and not because of one day. One man and not nearly 3,000 men and women.
In the weeks since San Francisco 49ers back-up quarterback Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during the National Anthem at a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, his social media following has averaged 18,000 new followers per day. His jersey — now the top-selling item on the NFL’s website as of Sept. 7 — has sold more in the last three weeks than the previous eight months combined. He’s become the center of a media firestorm, with debates over freedom of expression and athletes’ role in society roiling around him.
As a journalist, First Amendment rights are near and dear to my heart. I respect that Kaepernick is exercising his rights when he chooses to take a knee for the national anthem just as I am exercising my rights in writing this column. I can’t pretend I share the life experiences that informed Kaepernick’s protest. Who am I to challenge his decision to abstain from convention during that Francis Scott Key song? It’s a choice that each American must make for themselves.
And while I understand that the flag may represent injustice for some, I know that for others it represents great sacrifice.
After spending the summer working across the street from the World Trade Center Memorial at Sports Illustrated, this anniversary was a little more resonant for me. Something about walking by the black marble reflection pools underneath the shadow of the Freedom Tower every morning made the loss and sacrifice of 9/11 more palpable.
I was only six years old on September 11, 2001. I remember getting picked up early from school by my mom. She broke the idyllic haze of the Indian Summer Tuesday morning with two sentences:
“Two planes crashed into buildings in New York City,” she said. “Your dad is in New York for meetings today and I haven’t been able to reach him.”
We sat in the backyard for hours listening to a busy dial tone on my family’s new cordless phone before his voice finally cracked through the speaker. My dad had stayed at a hotel in Connecticut on the night of September 10, and the planes impaled the World Trade Center before he had a chance to leave for the city that morning. We didn’t see him for almost two more days, but he was safe.
On the morning of Sept. 12, I remember walking into the kitchen to see my mom holding the front page of the Star Tribune with one hand clasped over her mouth in horror.
“Oh my God,” she said. When I asked what was wrong, she just pointed to what looked like smudges on the picture of the South Tower in flames. “Those blobs in the sky are people. People jumping.”
The headline that day read, “TERRORIZED,” something my mom had to tell me because I hadn’t yet learned to read.
First grade had not yet started holding all-day classes, so from lunchtime until bedtime I parked myself in front of the news in our den. The monitor alternated between hearty renditions of the national anthem and panicked narrations of billowing clouds of dust and twisted steel. I had to ask my mom what the word “debris” meant. She was in shock and didn’t quite know how to explain the attacks to a child my age.
But how could you reduce an event with such an enormous human toll to terms digestible to a six-year-old? I was at the age where I followed up every sentence I heard with “why?” That was the one question my mom couldn’t answer.
One of my most vivid memories of the aftermath of 9/11 was watching one of the first NFL games after the attacks between the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos on Sept. 23. Players from both teams alternated with local firefighters and policemen to hold a giant American flag over the length of the field.
Even as a six year old, I knew it meant something. I cried watching it and the memory still makes me teary.
Sports occupies a unique place in American culture in that the players and outcomes represent more than men running up and down a 100-yard field for one hour each week. Actions on the field take on larger political symbolism.
Obviously, the rhetoric surrounding law enforcement is much different now, 15 years after the attacks, than it was on that Sunday in 2001 when the NFL returned to normalcy after a weeklong hiatus from games. Still, I don’t think that should preclude Americans from taking a few minutes to reflect on the life-saving role law enforcement played on that infamous Tuesday morning.
And what better time to reflect and pay respects to a watershed moment in American history than during the National Anthem.
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