- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2001

All across America yesterday morning, sportswriters apologized for being, well, sportswriters. At least, that's the way it came across.

"How silly it all seems now… .," wrote Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Tribune. "How silly that we wasted our breathlessness on [the Michael Jordan comeback story]."

"Bigger than life, we make [our sports heroes]," Mike Lopresti of USA Today chimed in. "And then we are reminded every so often that life is bigger, and so is death."

Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee talked about sports going "merrily along in their well-supported fantasy world, impervious, barely connected to anything that occurs in real life."

And Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press spoke of "the triviality of kids' games played by grown men."

I've never confused sports with, say, cancer research or solving the world hunger problem. Sports aren't as essential to American society as a strong military and good schools. But sports are important to people, they serve a purpose, and here's the proof: Less than 48 hours after terrorists declared war on the United States, leveling the World Trade Center and trying to inflict similar damage on the Pentagon, you're sitting there reading this.

Look, I hurt, you hurt, everybody hurts. Words can't begin to express the hurt. But it's at times like these, I'm convinced, that we need sports more than ever that they become more important, not more "silly" or "trivial" or divorced from reality. I'm not just talking about sports-as-escape (the all-too-pat explanation for its popularity). I'm talking about sports as a source of joy, sports as a reason for living.

Isn't that a natural reaction to what happened Tuesday? To search for beauty any kind of beauty to blot out the ugliness? The light in a child's eyes. A perfectly prepared meal. Grover Washington playing the saxophone.

And yes, sports. The excitement, the drama, the heroes, the villains, the blood, the sweat, the tears sports have a beauty all their own. A famous football player once summed it up rather nicely. He was talking about his own game, but he could just as easily have been talking about any of the others (except maybe boxing). "Football," he said, "is dead on the level. You can't fake it."

You can't fake it. That's why I'm always amused by folks when I'm not gnashing my teeth, that is who chide sports for living in "a fantasy world." The life many of these athletes live away from the arena is, I most heartily agree, the stuff of dreams. Gated communities. The best of everything. These are the perks of affluence.

But their life on the playing field? It doesn't get much more real than that. It doesn't get much more real than a 95-mph Roger Clemens fastball buzzing at your brain. In the past few months we've had Korey Stringer and Rashidi Wheeler (among others) die of heat prostration and a boxer succumb to head injuries. Barely 12 hours before kamikaze planes toppled the two tallest buildings in New York, the Broncos' Ed McCaffrey reached for a pass over the middle and was mercilessly punished by the free safety, the blow breaking two bones in his left leg. Sports are the ultimate reality programming only there's nothing programmed about them.

Here's what I find myself appreciating more and more about sports, though: An American second baseman letting a fat pitch go by so a Japanese right-fielder can steal a base. A black offensive tackle taking a beating so a white quarterback can throw a pass. A Chinese center setting a screen so a German forward can get loose for a three-pointer. A Czech winger drawing the defense to him so a Canadian defenseman can have a clear shot at the goal.

Our games give us daily examples of international cooperation, all in the name of sport. In moments like this, particularly, it's comforting to be reminded that people from different cultures are capable of coexisting even bonding. If only the UN worked so well.

So after a respectful interval the weekend, perhaps? sports will return. They'll return because life, of course, must go on. They'll return because we can certainly use the diversion. And they'll return because … how can I put this delicately?

I can't help thinking of a popular bumper sticker in Boston during the '70s, when the Bruins were riding high. "Jesus saves," it said, "… but [Phil] Espo[sito] scores on the rebound."


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