NFL weighs canceling games

Decision due today

Billick wants to play

September 13, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In a week when football takes a backseat to reality, NFL players yesterday voiced reservations - and apprehensions - about playing this weekend's schedule.

One day after a terrorist assault on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde was not eager to fly west for Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders.

"I think all the games should be canceled this week," Testaverde said. "The last thing we want to do is get on a plane and go to California, when all four of those planes that were hijacked were going to California."

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue conducted daylong meetings with entities inside and outside the league, even soliciting advice from the White House, on whether to cancel the league's 15-game schedule this weekend. Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, recommended cancellation.

A decision is expected this morning. A verdict to postpone would wipe out the Ravens' game against the Minnesota Vikings, which is scheduled to be Baltimore's first Monday night appearance in 23 years.

Ravens coach Brian Billick left no doubt about where he stood on the matter.

"From a personal standpoint - not as a coach, but as an American - we want to play," he said. "I don't want cowards to dictate what we do in this country. That's where my anguish is right now."

Individually, the Ravens expressed mixed emotions in the debate to play or not this weekend.

"Right now, football is secondary on our mind," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "We realize a nation is grieving. We realize the commissioner is talking to a lot of people to make sure everybody's best interest is a hand.

"I understand both sides. In a situation like this, everybody's first reaction is just to cancel everything and take time to heal. But I can also understand that, hey, let's show the world that this didn't affect us as bad as everybody thinks it did and let's get back to normal."

Art Modell, owner of the Ravens, was tight-lipped about behind-the-scenes discussions at the league level. He said Tagliabue would render a decision only after speaking with various factions, including the owners, players union and television networks.

Modell was opposed to the league's decision to play two days after the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. That decision by then-commissioner Pete Rozelle was widely criticized, even by Rozelle himself.

"I was opposed to playing in November 1963," Modell said. "But Pete Rozelle told me he was persuaded by the fact that Kennedy's close friend, Bud Wilkinson, head coach at Oklahoma, decided to have his team play the next day. And Pete was persuaded by that decision, and I in turn realized what he was trying to do."

If the games are scratched, it might mean a 15-game season for every team except the San Diego Chargers, who have a bye this week. Because the Super Bowl follows the conference championship games by one week rather than the normal two, there is no wiggle room in the schedule. Only a major alteration could accommodate the 16-game schedule.

Players across the league expressed concerns about playing so soon after the tragedy.

"I have to do what the league says, but if they cancel this weekend's games, that would be OK with me," said Keith Lyle, a reserve safety with the Washington Redskins. "This tragedy is much bigger than the NFL. I think baseball did a good job when they stopped all the games. This is when the nation has to come together, because this is serious business. It affects everyone in this country.

"We're in the heart of this, and D.C. is a prime target."

The Redskins are scheduled to play the Arizona Cardinals at FedEx Field, some 20 miles from the Pentagon.

"It's good to try to move on from it, but it's difficult," said Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey. "Football is nothing compared to this. ...

"I think everybody would be ready to play if we have to play. We're going to prepare like we're going to play. If we play, we're ready. If not, we'll be ready next week."

Upshaw, meanwhile, was meeting by conference call with player representatives from each team last night. He said yesterday he had not talked to any player who wanted Sunday's games to be played.

"There's a safety factor, whether it's flying or security at the stadium," said Willie Anderson, offensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals. "There's a lot of risk for having NFL teams traveling this weekend. ... To think about playing a game this weekend, that's kind of hard."

Said Jets center Kevin Mawae: "It's not hard to read the team. Everything we've talked about in here [the locker room] is not the Raiders. It's, `Who saw what? Who did it?' That's the main focus."

There were also logistical problems for the teams to deal with, too. Four players missed yesterday's 45-minute Ravens practice because they were out of town and were unable to get back.

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