Sunday, August 16, 2015
I'm struggling at the right word to put before Creep in this post. No, this isn't about creepy behavior, but about the way in which information and historical insight can creep. In the historical community "classification creep" refers to the system by which one-time classified files are made public, usually 25 years after the documents were deemed classified. As documents become public, the historical analysis on a given topic can change in light of the new evidence. This in part explains the cyclical nature by which a president's legacy seems to get reevaluated.
Mike Sielski wrote a column in today's Inquirer that got the part of my brain still tuned to History 300 (Methods) from college humming. Philadelphia sports fans tend to glorify Chuck Bednarik, one of the NFL's last two-way players and, even more rare, one of the Eagles' championship players. The most famous image from Concrete Charlie's career is the one atop this post, of Bednarik celebrating a fumble securing the Eagles' victory over the Giants in their 1960 season. Or, was he gloating over the player he had just injured, Frank Gifford?
Today, Sielski publishes a column in which he points to evidence (other photos taken of that sequence of events by a Sports Illustrated photographer) that Bednarik probably was exulting over an injury. That's an interpretation that is blasphemous in many Philadelphia fan circles. Why publish such a provocative opinion today?
Because the two most important figures, Bednarik and Gifford, are now dead. Bednarik took with him to his grave the story that he was simply triumphing that the game was finished. Gifford never challenged that claim. Bednarik's motives to write the history in a hue favorable to him are pretty clear. As for Gifford, how could he remember what happened that moment? Further, how could he, as an all-star and Hall of Famer in America's great gladiatorial sport, ever sound like he was crying over a physical hit.
Now that Gifford is dead, there isn't a need to politely nod one's head and let a gentleman preserve his dignity.
The photographer died in 2002: we've lost any chance to get him to reconcile the record.
So what do we call the historical creep that allows us to speak candidly about emotion-charged moments like this? I'm unsure of that. I love, though, how that event from 1960, an event which cannot happen again, can get richer and deeper as time goes on. There is no way we will know every detail with absolute certainty for important events. History remains compelling because it offers the chance to reexamine and reanalyze and, in so doing, add more past than there was in the first place.