- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2001

Shocking as the revelation may be, living apparently is dangerous stuff.

It seems this is going down as the "summer of death" in sports, and the coinage bordering on parody lacks only eerie background music and a sober-minded narrator. The "summer of death" is related in spirit to the "Summer of Sam," one of Spike Lee's attempts at art, as art is minimally defined on film.

The "summer of death" has a certain ominous pull to it, as if the bubonic plague is upon us and the wailing masses are leaving their villages, with young ones, livestock and rags in tow.

They are dying in sports, one after the other, and maybe we should have seen it coming after Dale Earnhardt hit the wall last February. Maybe his death was the precursor to the summer, the awful "summer of death."

Boxer Beethavean Scottland. Dead. Florida football player Eraste Autin. Dead. NFL player Korey Stringer. Dead. Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler. Dead.

"Do they have to die?" USA Today asks.

The answer, of course, though not necessarily USA Today's answer, is that no one has to die on a particular day. Dying is strange that way. You don't pick death. Death picks you. This excludes the mentally incompetent who pick the time and place.

Hard as it is to believe, death is an unwanted but close companion of the living, even for those who play or scribble for a living. Death is an equal-opportunity event, the fear that goes with it pervasive and unyielding, and the alternative, really, is to live life in the fetal position, which is not much of a life at all.

People routinely risk their well-being each day, usually when they sit behind the wheel of their vehicle, start the engine and hit the roadway. More than 40,000 people die a year in vehicle-related accidents, many in ways more senseless than others, but all senseless on some level. Do they have to die, too? Or do we the people accept this as the price of living life, of being actively engaged?

It would be awfully hard for suburbanites to walk to the District each day, the commute time ridiculous, although it would be incredibly safer, if not healthier on a person's heart.

A life lost to the roadway is no less a waste than one lost on the gridiron or one lost while climbing Mount Everest. It is what people do while trying to scramble to the top in one fashion or another. They push. They take chances. One person's definition of an acceptable risk is another person's definition of crazy. Perspective is important.

The farmer in Iowa just might think it is nuts to drive on the Beltway, and the farmer just might have a point, depending on the day, the volume of traffic and the number of overturned tractor-trailers.

Yet there is no District-to-Iowa migration, no rush by the local populace to eliminate the inherent risks of living in a congested area. Football is a dangerous activity, the same as boxing, the same as living in the crush of humanity with a cell phone in one hand and a laptop computer in the other, juiced up on carbon monoxide.

The Type A personality is seeking validation as well, not unlike the sports type, chasing something essential, often by middle age a date with a heart surgeon. Do they have to have open-heart surgery?

Some committed souls dine on rabbit's food, jog five miles a day, drink gallons of water by the hour and get eight hours' sleep each night. They die, too, some sooner than expected, because sometimes, no matter what, a person's genetic code has the last laugh.

Death inevitably inspires an overly sensitive sentiment in sports, perhaps because sports only pretends to be a life-and-death struggle. The ubiquitous black patch on the jersey reflects an unease that works only because it is sports. The same fashion accessory in the workplace only would cause concern. If an employee inscribed his grandmother's memory on his work shoes, it might prompt an employer to ask, "Are you all right? Would you like to talk to a professional?"

The black patch, or ribbon, is actually part artifice, speaking not to others but to the camera, and at times, however unintentionally, the lens trivializes the intent. Susan Sarandon sometimes wears so many ribbons that she appears to be playing the part of a banana republic dictator. She cares so much, which is a badge of honor in itself.

The significance of one death over another is tricky stuff. Death is society's last chance to make right on its inequities, to lend a broader, more accurate context in some cases and eschew its celebrity panting. There is a fairly impressive ripple effect that accompanies the death of a longtime teacher, uncelebrated though the profession may be. The same goes with cops, firefighters and medical and rescue personnel, the backbone of society.

One of the brilliant strokes of the HBO series "Six Feet Under" is that it starts each episode with a death. Some passings are inspired by seemingly innocent circumstances. It could happen to anyone, which is the point.

Death, especially celebrity death, exposes the limitations of the 24-7 news cycle, demanding as it does time and reflection instead of instant analysis.

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