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9/11 and the Steelers versus the Ravens: Football in the Kingdom of Fear

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Maybe it’s just me, but tomorrow’s match between Pittsburgh and Baltimore kind of feels … wrong.

Don’t misunderstand: I am ecstatic that this match is taking place. Not so far as several weeks ago did the longtime labor strife had me doubting if we would even have a 2011 season, or if their heartbreaking defeat at Super Bowl XLV would not be the last I would see of my beloved Steelers for a long time. Now I get to watch them inaugurate the first Sunday of the regular season by continuing the greatest ongoing rivalry in American sports in a match-up that always promises pain and bitterness and regret and any other number of metaphors for a hard-knock life. Dreading a possible lack of an entire season of football and then finding out the first game of the first Sunday will feature the NFL’s premier smash-mouth teams is like expecting that irradiated spider bite to give you cancer and then discovering you have super-powers.

It will be a great game, no doubt. But again, something is just not sitting right with me.

Maybe it’s because I find the attempt to transition into full-blown football fever after languishing in uncertainty and post-defeat self-pity since February to be a bit jarring in its suddenness.

Maybe I think opening the season with Pittsburgh at Baltimore feels too much like a desperate gambit by the higher-ups to get us to forget the ugly self-actualization of the lockout. “Of course you, the fans, are our greatest priority!” one can almost picture a bloated and mealy-mouthed talking head saying. “Look! It’s the Steelers versus the Ravens! Look how much we love you, peasants!”

Maybe in the wake of seeing what a real rivalry truly is—when the animosity between teams was suddenly forgotten as players became one big band of brothers standing opposite the united team owners with the fans caught in the middle—this rivalry doesn’t seem as heated and as huge and as world-shattering in its scope as we like to pretend it is. Perspective can’t help but shift when money and greed enter the picture, and people you once viewed as warriors and modern day gladiators become little more than large men being paid by rich old men to smash into other large men, and all the hype, trash talk, and overblown offseason swagger and brouhaha are revealed to be petty posturing.

Or maybe—or most likely—it is just difficult to find good sport in the irrational hatred two teams and fan bases have for one another when exactly ten years ago irrational hatred brought about the single biggest loss of American lives and plunged the world into its current purgatory somewhere in the fear, in the darkness.

Before I realized that it would fall on a Sunday in football season I had planned on keeping away from television and the Internet on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I had hoped on avoiding the inevitable recirculated photos of Richard Drew’s “Falling Man”. I had hoped on not having to hear about the ever-decreasing number of surviving rescue dogs who pawed through the rubble at Ground Zero. I had hoped I would not have to look upon the widowed and orphaned and the bearers of ghosts. I had hoped that sudden surging swells in patriotism and loving thy neighbor would not be tainted, as they always inevitably are, by the thought of the subsequent decade of war and displacement, of death and prejudice.

I understand that we cannot afford to ignore the significance of September 11 ten years on. I know that for all our talk of looking to the future, it is just as important to look back. I would have been outraged if the country did not bother to commemorate the lost.

It is not that I want to forget, but that I want to watch the Steelers and the Ravens beat the shit out of each other and for once not be reminded.

This is the truth: Whether or not we ever learn from it, we are in no danger of forgetting the atrocities of 9/11. He may have died an inglorious death and the ultimate long-term ramifications of his hatred are yet to be revealed, but Osama bin Laden succeeded beyond a shadow of a doubt in creating a Kingdom of Fear; even from his hell at the bottom of the sea he is yet to ease his icy grip on our spines. We celebrate his death still even as we secretly acknowledge that he can never really die, and his legacy has turned something as inherently beneficent as remembering those who are no longer here into a form of self-mutilation as penance: Every year we claim kinship and brotherhood as we honor the dead, but every year the scars that the ruins of the World Trade Center have carved into our collective conscious are reopened. From the ubiquity of CCTV cameras to horror stories about the TSA; from the civil dissent of the young and disenfranchised to our distrust of anyone who looks different, lives different, and believes different, we self-flagellate to punish ourselves for our one moment of weakness in letting our guard down, for daring to trust in the innate goodness of man, for wanting to believe that there are no wolves in the world.

Tomorrow I will watch the game, and I will sit through the commemorations and testimonials and aching stories of a world at war, and, wearied, I will ask myself how people can hate other people so much when they’ve never even met. Then I’ll laugh when I realize my hypocrisy in participating in my own socially acceptable and morally defensible extremism, in my praying for James Harrison to cripple Ray Rice, for Troy Polamalu to tomahawk chop Joe Flacco, for Mike Wallace to leave Ed Reed choking on his dust.

Then I’ll remember how good it felt to watch Antonio Brown seal a Steelers victory over the Ravens last Divisional Playoff by catching a 58-yard pass with his helmet, and how important it is, in the face of everything ending, to put one in the win column every once in a while, whether it be a football game or a desperate desire to believe that everything we’ve done for the past ten years is all in the name of some unimaginable greater good.

Perhaps there is no better time for the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game, after all, than tomorrow.

Go Black. Go Yellow.

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  1. Waylon Wernette's Avatar
    Steelers got stomped out. In your face Phil.

    Also I wouldn't say the majority of the country lives in a Kingdom of Fear. I could understand how some, if not most in NYC feel this way on September 11, but I think the majority of the country feels relatively safe.