It was just one of those years. For me, it all started in February, with a moment that was both shocking and eerily prescient. On the last lap of the Daytona 500, as Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip dice to the checkered flag, in the corner of the screen two other cars bump, and Dale Earnhardt’s black number three veers up the banking toward the wall.
Almost as an afterthought, Fox gives us the replay of the Earnhardt crash: a nudge, a little paint swapped, a new black mark on the concrete barrier. It’s the kind of accident that happens five times a Sunday in NASCAR, the kind of crash that normally wouldn’t even make the highlights on Sports Center, especially in a race that was punctuated by a 19-car Pontiac-in-low-earth-orbit demolition derby that the producers deemed worthy of 15 replays.
Then we get the in-car camera shot of the Earnhardt crash. Looking over Dale’s shoulder, we watch—almost feel—the car wiggle left, then veer sharply right. The wall approaches. The screen goes black. The image is familiar to any arcade veteran who’s ever fed quarters into Sega’s Daytona USA or fiddled with the joystick playing NASCAR Racing 2 on a friend’s computer. All that replay lacked was context. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were seeing a point-of-view shot of death, live on television, riding shotgun on Dale’s last lap. In any other year, the death of a guy who, in Middle America, is more of a folk hero than Kurt Warner, Alex Rodriguez, or Karl Malone would be the biggest sports story of the year. Not this year. Not this year. 2001 would become the year of the replay.
Four months later, on ESPN2, it happened again. We watched as Beethavean Scottland and George Khalid Jones fought on a card on the USS Intrepid, docked off Manhattan. Scottland, a last-minute replacement for David Telesco, who was injured in training, was in real-life Rocky territory. Going into the 10th round, he was down on points, but by ending the fight on his feet, he’d score a moral victory—the announcers said as much—and a shot at another payday. With 37 seconds left in the final round, Jones nailed Scottland with a right to the head. He staggered. But Scottland steadied himself and stayed on his feet. Jones followed with a left, and Scottland crumpled to the canvas.
It’s a scene we’ve watched a thousand times before. And it’s usually most memorable for the guy still standing, his arms raised in victory—picture Ali looming over a prone and humbled Sonny Liston. But this time, and in all the replays, Beethavean Scottland wouldn’t get up. The 26-year-old father of three died six days later of a cerebral hemorrhage. In a country too squeamish to televise an execution, this was a remarkable moment. And in the wake of September 11, a largely forgotten one. How can seeing one man die once compare to seeing 3000 die 3000 times?
Of course, 9-11 was the top sports story of 2001. What could we do but applaud as Bernie Williams and Joe Torre headed down to ground zero without ever acknowledging the strangeness of the gesture, what it said about our definition of heroism? We didn’t bat an eye as “God Bless America” displaced “Cotton Eye Joe,” or the communal mustard dispensers disappeared overnight after Tom Daschle’s letter tested positive. We cheered as an F-15 buzzed Yankee Stadium, making the world safe for a Kevlar-wearing former baseball owner to toss the ceremonial first pitch. The House That Ruth Built truly never shook like that before. September 11 wasn’t easy, but it was simple. We had someone to blame, and it was easy to root for the home team.
But in sports, we don’t do death well, at least when it’s a death in the family. Our fallback positions don’t work—John Facenda bombast or Stuart Scott snarkiness are equally inappropriate. So when an athlete dies at play, we squirm a little and write reverent columns in tribute or end the news item with a still portrait, seven seconds of silence, and a slow fade to a commercial. And we did it a lot—too often—this year.
For Earnhardt. For Scottland. For others whose ends weren’t captured on videotape. Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer. Florida State linebacker Devaughn Darling. Florida fullback Eraste Autin. World Cup skier Regine Cavagnoud. Northwestern safety Rashidi Wheeler. America’s Cup winning skipper Peter Blake.
Of course it’s easier to do the obit and play the next highlight. Because if we think about these deaths too much, try to assign blame, we know that the search will end with at least a sidelong glance in the mirror. It’s easy to comfort ourselves by saying that these dearly departed were doing what they loved, that they understood the risks. But whether or not OSHA agrees, these are on-the-job fatalities, young men and women who died in the service of our entertainment as surely as a stuntman whose parachute doesn’t open. So when it happens again this year—and it will—and an athlete dies before our very eyes, let’s not mince words about what we’re seeing. Tragic, yes. But probably preventable. And all too likely to happen again.
2001 in Quotes
“I didn’t think it was all that funny.” —Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson, who hit a dove with a fastball during a spring training game in Tucson, killing the bird, which exploded in a shower of feathers
“Usually, people think it’s an OK name, until they see how we spell it and figure everything out. That’s when everyone says, ‘Oh my gosh, how could you do that to your kid?’ ”
—Jason Curiel of Corpus Christi, Texas, who named his only son ESPN, after the cable network
“It was something between friends that I thought would have no importance until this morning when I got up and saw all the commotion in the news.” —Sevilla midfielder Francisco Gallardo, who gently bit the genitals of a teammate during a post-goal celebration
“I guess if you ever point a knife toward yourself, you should do it off to the side.” —San Diego Padres pitcher Adam Eaton, who missed a start after stabbing himself in the stomach while trying to open a DVD
“He’s made mistakes in the past, but this was not one of them.” —attorney Howard Shapiro, filing a plea of not guilty on behalf of former Dallas Cowboy Nate Newton, who was charged with possession of 175 pounds of marijuana, his second drug arrest in six weeks
“That ugly, ugly lady. She was really ugly, very serious, you know. I was like kind of scared. . . . And that guy, a little, you know, he looks like a faggot a little bit. This hair all over him.” —Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, describing two linespeople who made controversial calls against him during his five-set victory
“All the U-S-A chants were cool. Usually, you get ‘You suck!’ ” —Atlanta Braves pitcher Greg Maddux, on pitching at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia
“A lot of young players are not committed to winning. They’re committed to buying cars and jewelry and making rap videos.” —Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller, whose teammate Jalen Rose had $250,000 worth of customized jewelry stolen from a locker in Milwaukee’s Bradley Center
“It was the typical kind of thing a veteran would do to a rookie.” —agent Peter Schaffer, describing the actions of New Orleans Saints wide receiver Albert Connell, arrested in late December for allegedly stealing $863 from the locker of teammate Deuce McAllister and $3500 from McAllister’s car. Months earlier, Connell had signed a $14 million contract extension. —A.S.