Thursday, September 13, 2001

NFL must put sense before $$$




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        Back when he was a football apprentice at Notre Dame, Bengals tackle Oliver Gibson recalls a squad of military jets buzzing the Orange Bowl before a big game. He remembers wondering, “What if?”

        What if the skies weren't so friendly? What if a pilot had mayhem on his mind? What would make a better bull's-eye than a stadium packed with people?

        “If you want to eliminate a bunch of people, that would be a great target,” Gibson said Wednesday.

        While there's a case to be made that our games should go on to demonstrate our national defiance, this is no time to be skimping on security. Not while there are still bodies buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center.

        If the NFL elects to conduct its business this weekend, public safety must be its highest priority. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue must be able to convince the public that appropriate precautions have been taken — particularly for games scheduled in New York and Washington — and that stadium security has not diverted resources from some higher purpose. He must convince his customers that the NFL is driven by prudence as well as profits.

        He must be careful and he must be sure, because confidence alone no longer cuts it in the United States.

Seed is planted

        “I don't know if you can beef the security up (enough) in four or five days,” Bengals tackle Willie Anderson said Wednesday. “You can no longer say nothing will happen at an NFL football game. Anything can happen now. That's on guys' minds.”

        This is a ticklish time for Tagliabue. His predecessor, Pete Rozelle, died convinced that one of his biggest mistakes was in authorizing play on the Sunday following John Kennedy's assassination. Yet while the NFL can ill-afford to appear insensitive on another occasion of national mourning, there is a lot more at stake this time than decorum.

        Several Bengals players openly wonder about the wisdom of playing Sunday's scheduled game against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. Football's quasi-military culture promotes groupthink and deference to the chain of command, but Tuesday's terrorism has caused a tangible break in the ranks.

More than economics

        Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau and quarterback Jon Kitna are both playing the good soldier, awaiting instructions instead of volunteering opinions. But tight end Marco Battaglia and linebacker Canute Curtis have both expressed reservations about suiting up Sunday.

        “Even the guys who want to play, they have their minds on the safety factor,” Anderson said. “There's a lot of concern for half of the NFL teams that have to travel, and it's hard to concentrate on playing a game when you've got thousands of people who've lost their lives.”

        The economic impact of skipping a week on the schedule would be enormous. The psychological benefit of proceeding as normal is incalculable. Oliver Gibson said he would willingly sacrifice a week's pay if the games were called off because, “Everybody has to do their part,” but his preference is to “push on.”

        “It depends on what the state of the union is,” Gibson said. “As the American conscience dictates, I'm sure the NFL will follow.”

        E-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com. Past columns at www.enquirer.com/columns/sullivan.

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