The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 9/11 attacks changed the way sports networks broadcast games

President George W. Bush is greeted by Diamondbacks Manager Bob Brenley and Yankees Manager Joe Torre after throwing the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the World Series in New York on Oct. 30, 2001. (Luke Frazza/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Pat Tillman was killed in Iraq. He was killed in Afghanistan.

Bob Ley was at home on his treadmill, watching TV, when he saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Ley, an ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor, was supposed to be off that day in 2001. But as ESPN’s de facto hard-news specialist, he was soon on the phone with an executive, discussing if, and how, the country’s leading sports network should cover the news.

Then the second plane hit.

“I said, ‘I’ll be there in an hour,’ ” Ley recalled telling his higher-ups.

Once he arrived at ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters, Ley and colleagues debated how to handle the day. ESPN had chosen to simulcast the feed from its sister network, ABC, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and Ley recalled that some in the room believed they should stick with ABC through the night. But Ley thought ESPN had a duty to report the news from the world of sports, including athlete reactions and game cancellations.

His argument prevailed, and ESPN aired a one-hour special.

“It is a day and a tragedy unlike any other moment in American history. This morning’s terrorist attacks have left the country numb, injured and angry,” Ley said as he welcomed viewers to the program.

He added: “Sports is an afterthought; we fully appreciate that. We know you do as well. Still, there is news to report tonight.”

Years later, the 9/11 memorial museum near Ground Zero would include footage from that “SportsCenter” special. When Ley visited, he watched people stop and watch the clips of him and his partner that night, Trey Wingo.

“It was emotional,” Ley said. “And it validated our decision.”

The days and years after 9/11 changed the way Ley and his colleagues across sports media broadcast games. Almost immediately, teams and leagues — and, by default, the networks that aired their games — entered a new era in which those games were infused with a certain type of patriotism: military-jet flyovers, field-sized flags, the singing of “God Bless America.”

Weeks after the attacks, on Oct. 30, 2001, President George W. Bush threw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, a moment widely hailed at the time for helping the country come together. It later became a “30 for 30” documentary on ESPN.

But what began for sports and networks as a way to offer catharsis in response to a tragedy became something else as the United States invaded two countries and spent two decades in Afghanistan. Those same sports networks became important advertising for the military’s efforts.

Skepticism of that arrangement came slowly. Ley recalled a segment on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” ahead of the Super Bowl a few months after 9/11 in which Al Franken, a Democrat who would go on to serve in the Senate, and J.D. Hayworth, a Republican congressman, addressed the question of how much patriotism would be too much for the game. Ley quoted from a Sacramento Bee column written by Mark Kreidler: “This would be [the] perfect year for the NFL to embrace the difference between patriotism and pandering schmaltz. There is a limit to how much the football-watching public is willing to have crammed down its gullet in the name of the red, white and blue.”

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Kreidler was an outlier then. Franken and Hayworth believed the NFL’s presentation would be appropriate given the mood of the country, fresh off tragedy.

That sentiment endured even as post-9/11 unity evolved more fully to an effort to market the wars. In addition to daily renditions in baseball stadiums of “God Bless America,” there were international trips from national sports networks to war zones. In 2004, after the invasion of Iraq, “SportsCenter” visited Kuwait and filmed episodes there.

“The goal … is to demonstrate how important [soldiers] are to our lives and our freedom to enjoy sports at home,” the news release announced.

In 2009, "Fox NFL Sunday visited Bagram air base in Afghanistan. The show ran a segment about Pat Tillman, the popular NFL player who enlisted alongside his brother after 9/11. Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, only to have military officials attempt to cover it up. The Fox segment didn’t mention anything about how Tillman died, showing instead a festive scene inside Pat Tillman USO, according to one contemporaneous account.

Ley said there was an important distinction between celebrating the soldiers and the policymakers. Still, he said, addressing that nuance was tricky for sportscasters. “If someone was expecting a thoughtful sports media person in the middle of all this coverage and tribute to suddenly say, ‘Yeah, but this war we’ve embarked on is a folly,’ I think that’s an unrealistic expectation — and it’s career suicide,” he said.

Longtime sportscaster Bob Costas said the airing of “God Bless America” on broadcasts began as meaningful and connected to 9/11 but that eventually changed, leaving some announcers delivering talking points that were contentious and debatable.

“Did we sometimes start to hear these never-questioned notions like, ‘Well, here are our troops, and without them being wherever they are, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our Thanksgiving and football’?” he asked. “Yes, and I don’t think it’s unpatriotic to say. . . . That is subject to debate.”

In 2015, the relationship between the sports industry and the military was revealed to be more cynical than how it had been presented on TV for years. A congressional report detailed that the military was paying teams millions of dollars for tributes to soldiers and other forms of celebration at sporting events.

Keith Olbermann, a former “SportsCenter” anchor and MSNBC host, said: “There was the ethical equivalent of bribing the leagues and, thus, the sports networks that carried them to sell people on the idea that war was the response to 9/11. Anywhere a bullet was loaded, this was about 9/11.”

The next year, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the playing of the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice, igniting new questions about what patriotism meant and how sports celebrated it. But it was another five years, and amid a nationwide racial reckoning, before sports networks shifted how they talked about patriotism.

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Mets will host the Yankees in a series between the New York rivals that will surely deliver an emotional tribute to the tragic events of that day. During their next home game, the Yankees will again play “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.

“I remember thinking the Yankees will never be able to get out of doing ‘God Bless America,’ ” Costas said. But 20 years later, he said, its meaning is less clear than it was that day. “It’s hard to figure what the reason is for doing it.”

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