Friday, November 2, 2012

The Marathon

Whether you agreed with it or not, the New York City Marathon was going to happen this Sunday. That is, until the middle of the day on Friday when it was not. Was the Mayor's ultimate decision the right one?

When is the moment after a tragedy when it is appropriate to move forward with a major sporting event? When does this cross over from being an insensitive intrusion and instead become an emotional regeneration? I look to devastating events and their aftermath for guidance and insight.

On October 17, 1989 the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics were warming up for Game 3 of the World Series. Suddenly, the upper level of the stands in Candlestick Park began to tremble. The Loma Prieta earthquake registered 6.9 on the Richter scale. The final toll was 63 dead, over 3,500 injured and thousands homeless. All the airports in the Bay Area were closed. Transportation was halted as major roadways sustained massive damage. The estimate of repair costs was near $2 billion. Ten days after the stands shook, game 3 was played.

The events of 9/11 brought this country to a horrified standstill. The New York Stock Exchange did not open on September 11, and would not renew operations until September 17. Broadway theaters remained dark for but 2 days and reopened (with dimmed lights) on September 13. New York City's mayoral primary had begun on September 11, but was suspended during that day and did not continue until September 25. And on the day that the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, Bud Selig announced that Major League baseball would not be played on that day, and no strike or ball was called until 6 days later. In the 24 hours after the attack, 11 people were pulled alive from the rubble.

Sandy arrived on the New Jersey shore with a brutal intensity and its ferocity reached into millions of homes. Few parts of New York City were spared. Physical destruction was massive and power outages continue to create enormous hardship in the days after the storm's arrival. The estimate on the financial costs now run as high as $50 billion.The emotional devastation appears without end. In the midst of this, almost 50,000 runners were to line up this Sunday morning, November 4, to run slightly over 26 miles through the 5 boroughs of the city, past those whose lives have so recently been disrupted.

On November 23, 1963, on the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the National  Football League decided that the games would go on that day. It was, he later decided, the worst decision of his career.

When the earthquake of 1989 hit in San Francisco and Candlestick was damaged, that earlier determination of Mr. Rozelle was remembered by baseball commissioner Fay Vincent in comments he made shortly after the 9/11 attack: ''How could we think about playing in a stadium that wasn't available?''  ''We talked about going to Anaheim. We could have gone to Oakland....My decision was influenced by Rozelle's. He said it was a terrible mistake. You can't play a game against such events.''

On September 15, 2001, 4 days after the Twin Towers came down, the New York Times published an article entitled "After the Attack, Where to Get Information, A List of Emergency Numbers and Websites". The piece began as follows: "Searching for Missing Loved Ones. Finding a place to stay. Trying to get to work. Looking for a way to help." 

The New York Times on November 3, 2012 reported as follows ("Hardship Strains Emotions in New York") : In the New York area there were "powerfully long lines for free meals, lines for buses to take people where crippled subways could not, lines for gasoline that stretched 30 blocks in Brooklyn."  The article stated that "critics said it would be in poor taste to hold a footrace through 5 boroughs while so many people in the area were still dealing with damage from the hurricane."

"Wisely Stepping Aside in Bombarded City" (New York Times, November 3, 2012) reacted to the Mayor's change of heart on allowing the race to proceed: "It was already a bad idea when the winds stopped howling and the tides stopped surging and the real public servants, out there in the neighborhoods, began to report just how bad this was, how bad this still is."

What lessons do we learn from all of these events? The answer may depend on different criteria, but I believe there is one overriding concern: are we in the search and rescue period or have we moved into  recovery mode? In the first phase, there is a sense that the tragedy is still unfolding, the wounds still wide open and  there is something we can and should be doing to put an end to the underlying event. In tragedies like the one in 1989 in San Francisco, or 2001 underneath the rubble in New York City, or 2012 throughout the tri-state area, the immediacy of the pain does not begin to recede until the lights are back on, the heat in the apartment warms the cold that has attached,  the roadways welcome traffic or the hope of finding live bodies underneath the rubble no longer exists. It is only then that it is appropriate to bring sport back into our lives.

On September 21, 2001, 10 days after the Twin Towers fell, a major league baseball game was played in New York  Years later, Chipper Jones, a participant in that event, recalled the night: "Everyone went home feeling great, feeling wonderful. We had done our jobs as baseball players to entertain people," Jones said, "but we had gone I feel, above and beyond just the normal's day work in that we owed it to the City of New York and the Northeast United States to help heal a little bit, help take people's minds off a terrible tragedy for a couple of hours."

New York City is still underneath water, still in the midst of trying to dig out from under the rubble. The process is not yet complete. While there were many reasons for the runners to line up on Sunday, none of them were good enough. The healing will begin, but only when the raw nerve is not quite as prominently exposed.

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