By guest corespondent Michael Butterworth:
At first glance, this photograph may appear well-suited to NCN’s category “boots and hands.” But the cleats of Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano are not the real story here, or at least not primarily so. While the foot commands our attention, the real focus is on how it directs the viewer’s gaze to the legend printed on the base: “We Shall Not Forget.”
Even the most casual observer of sports has likely noticed how commonplace such memorials have become. The sentiment should be simple enough: 9/11 was an event of such magnitude and consequence that it is incumbent upon us to remember the things which bind us together as a nation. And since such “binding” seems to be one of the socio-cultural functions of national sporting events, it is little surprise that they have become the perfect vehicle for circulating such memories.
While such declarations make it clear that we should not forget, what is left unstated is exactly what we are to remember. Note, for example, that we are not being asked to remember the actual events of 9/11 itself. Indeed, memorials like those found in this photograph are only partially about the past; as memorializing is more often a reflection of a community’s needs in the present. And the present here, of course, is defined by the so-called “war on terror,” a military campaign that is now only minimally about 9/11 itself. With this in mind, we can view “We Shall Not Forget” as it overlaps with the numerous visions of militarism that have become woven into the fabric of sports—from red, white, and blue emblazoned ball caps, to military flyovers, to museum exhibitions—and conclude that sports in the United States continue to contribute to the normalization of a problematic war.
The tragedy in this is that the photograph reminds us that it needn’t have turned out this way. Behind Soriano’s carefully balanced cleats is the blurry image of the Miller Park outfield grass. Baseball mythology is grounded in, among other things, the idea that the ballpark represents a pastoral sanctuary—a metaphor of the countryside that offers comfort, security, and community. Although that mythology can be flawed, 9/11 precipitated a rare moment when the “national pastime” really did invite all Americans to participate in an imagined community, one based on genuine human needs laid bare in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
All too quickly, those initial ceremonies—of mourning, of healing, of hope—that took place in baseball stadiums in September and October of 2001, gave way to belligerent expressions of hot patriotism and militaristic vengeance. This photograph reminds us that in the days, months, and years after 9/11 there was a more humane and less violent path available to us. Now, just like the outfield grass in this photo, that path seems blurry and somehow out of reach. How easily we have forgotten, after all.
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Phelps/AP Photo
Michael Butterworth is an assistant professor of communication in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University and host of The Agon, a blog on rhetoric, sport, and political culture. Michael is also the author of the recently published Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror (University of Alabama Press, 2010). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.