Players were distracted. They didn’t want to fly. Some said they wouldn’t have played even if the rest of the league did.
“It really came down to the loss of life and the ability of players to absorb what we’ve all been through,” commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Thursday after calling off week 2. “We felt it was right to take a week to reflect and to help our friends, families and people in the community who need our support.”
ESPN.com’s Len Pasquarelli reported that the decision came after a morning conference call with owners, a session in which owners Art Modell of Baltimore and the New York Giants’ Wellington Mara argued strenuously against staging the games. Several owners contended just as strongly that the games should be played to help the country regain some sense of normalcy.
One owner told Pasquarelli that an overriding issue was the overwhelming sentiment of players, as voiced by NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, not to have the games.
Tagliabue’s decision to cancel because of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington had the full support of owners, coaches, players and, he said, even fans. Calling off the games changes the NFL season dramatically, as did the strikes in 1982 and 1987, the only other time the league wiped out games.
There are three options for the rest of the season:
- Thirty teams would play 15 games and San Diego would play 16: the Chargers were scheduled to be off this week.
- Wild-card games would be canceled and this week’s games would be played on wild-card Sunday, Jan. 6. That would put eight teams instead of 12 in the playoffs — the six division winners and one wild-card in each conference instead of three.
- Bye weeks would be juggled to finish a 16-game schedule and leave the playoffs the same. This seems least likely.
Even if the league had played, three teams would not have — the New York Giants and Jets, the Washington Redskins — what the league called “the teams at ground zero.” Their opponents were Green Bay, Oakland and Arizona.
“It would have been horrible trying to get ready for this game,” said Lomas Brown of the Giants, who were scheduled to play the Packers at Giants Stadium, 10 miles from the World Trade Center and a staging area for rescue vehicles.
“How can you sit in the stadium and enjoy a football game, and you look wherever you are sitting and you see smoke? It just would not have been right. Just coming in here today was bad.”
But players from other teams seemed equally distracted by the events, especially those with ties to New York.
“I really haven’t had my mind on football,” said Marco Battaglia of Cincinnati, who grew up in New York and was one of many players concerned about friends in the path of the attacks. “Right now, nobody feels safe anywhere. The thing right now is, let’s get America secure.”
Bengals teammate Willie Anderson said, “I don’t think we should be playing a game when they’re still pulling out bodies in New York. Kids still don’t have their parents.”
Giants player representative Jason Sehorn said Thursday he would not have participated if the NFL had decided to play games this weekend, and he said many other Giants players told him they had the same sentiments. Guard Glenn Parker said he would not have played and would have forfeited his paycheck.
“If we do play Sunday, it looks like: ‘Those damn football players. All they care about is their money,’” Phil Hansen of Buffalo said Wednesday. “But we don’t have a choice in the matter. The NFL’s going to decide. You know what? I’ll forego my weekly paycheck. This is serious.”
Others thought the NFL should set an example for terrorists.
“From a personal standpoint — not as a coach but as an American — we want to play,” Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “I don’t want cowards to dictate what we do in this country. That’s where my anguish is right now.”
The players, many of whom said they couldn’t focus on football, had a major role in the cancellation.
Although the vote wasn’t unanimous, player representatives decided Thursday night not to play the weekend, swayed after New York reps Michael Strahan of the Giants and Kevin Mawae of the Jets spoke about their experiences.
“The hair stood up on the back of my neck …” said Phil Hansen of the Bills. “Those guys told the way they felt and the way their teammates felt about security, about friends, about neighbors who hadn’t returned home yet. It was very vivid.”
John Kasay of Carolina said, “The New York teams obviously had a very focused interest, especially the Giants, whose practice facilities overlook where the Twin Towers were.
“That had a profound impact on those guys. So It was helpful and very beneficial for everyone on that call to listen and hear what was going on around the country.”
The first indication of the decision came from Giants Stadium, which is being used as a staging area for rescue and recovery vehicles from the attacks that leveled the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Smoke from the disaster can be seen from the stadium, about 10 miles away.
About 11:20 a.m. ET, John Mara, the team’s executive vice president, came running from his office in the stadium to the practice field, where he talked for about five minutes with coach Jim Fassel. A few minutes later, Hanlon told reporters that Sunday’s games were off.
Fassel then called his team into a huddle and told them that Sunday’s home opener with Green Bay was off. The players went to the sidelines, took off their shoulder pads, and resumed practice at a slower pace.
The White House said it was consulted, but did not take part in the NFL’s final decision. “We asked them to use their best judgment about whether to proceed,” administration spokeswoman Anne Womack said.
Tagliabue said he was influenced most by New York Gov. George Pataki.
But, he added: “Ultimately, we knew we had to make our decision in the best interests of football.”
“The overriding concern is that it’s inappropriate,” Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Lurie said. “We have an incredibly popular sport. It’s kind of like a church on Sundays for America to watch the NFL. The church on this Sunday should not be about cheering for one team over another. It should be supporting all the victims and their family and friends.”
Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson said: “I feel that to play the games would have shown a great insensitivity to this national tragedy that has shocked the nation and the world.”
Most of the owners are old enough to remember the November weekend in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated. Two days afterward, the NFL went on with its games, a decision commissioner Pete Rozelle called the worst he made in his 29-year tenure.
“I have experienced the post-Kennedy syndrome and it was very difficult,” Giants owner Wellington Mara said. “I think it would have been even more difficult because you have the constant reminder of the smoke.”
Tagliabue said that while he thought of 1963 and the discussions he had long afterward with Rozelle, “I realized that this was unprecedented. We had the loss of life of innocent citizens in New York, Washington and on four airliners.”
St. Louis coach Mike Martz said it was absolutely the “right thing to do.”
“The closer you got to playing, the more it seemed like it shouldn’t be played. Football’s not important right now,” he said.