- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

Any thoughtful person knows sports can be, and too frequently is, a rotten affair these days. Stories about bad people and bad deeds often seem to command more media and conversational attention than previously mundane matters like who won and who lost.

And the saddest thing of all might be that we accept this as normal. Sometimes, in fact, the situation is practically criminal.

Now, however, comes no less a towering figure than Pope John Paul II to tell us that fun and games are supposed to be about, well, fun and games.

This week the Vatican announced the formation of a sports division to spread what it termed Christian values around the globe. If you prefer, you can call them proper values instead — it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is getting to the point once again where sports and competition bring out the best in us rather than the worst.

As a teenager named Karol Wojtyla, the future pope spent a fair amount of time stopping soccer balls in his native Poland. Nearly six decades later, in failing health at 84, John Paul is trying to stop the spread of evil in sports.

Certainly the pope has enough other things to concern himself with in this sinful world. The fact that he has allowed this message to go out under his imprimatur reflects his understanding sports can and should be an enterprise as beneficial to our minds and souls as it is to our bodies.

But is it?

Before you answer, consider that the Olympic Games — once hailed as the most pristine form of amateur competition — now exists in some twisted brains primarily to spread propaganda and perhaps terrorism.

I don’t really care who wins most of the gold medals in Athens later this month or how high the television ratings might be. I do care, terribly, that these Games might become known to future generations as an occasion when pure horror manifested itself before the world — sort of like Munich in 1972 or New York and Washington on September11.

If that isn’t ominous enough for you, consider the presence of drugs in sports. Consider greedy team owners and arrogant millionaire jocks. Consider the strikes and lockouts that ensue from “negotiations” between equally obtuse management and labor officials. Too often these meetings produce no meeting of the mind because the minds involved are nailed shut.

Once, in another century and another sporting world, a New York ballplayer called “Laughing Larry” Doyle shared his sheer delight in life by saying, “It’s great to be young and a Giant.” Now those of us who love sports for its drama and supposed purity should be feeling very old.

Perhaps someone with a good knowledge of sports history will point out that Larry Doyle was cavorting happily in the Polo Grounds only a few summers before gamblers purportedly persuaded eight members of the Chicago “Black Sox” to throw the 1919 World Series. True, but here’s the difference: Back then such skullduggery and venality were the exception rather than the rule.

Forty years after Doyle, in a more enlightened social time, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs expressed similar joy by exclaiming, “Let’s play two!” Can you imagine any ballplayer saying that today, even if scheduled doubleheaders still existed?

I don’t know what practical forms Pope John Paul’s initiatives will take — probably he doesn’t either at this point — but you don’t have to be Christian, or even formally religious, to applaud the effort. Is there anyone among us who wouldn’t like to shed his cares and burdens for two or three hours and lose himself in the exultation of competing or watching others do so?

That used to be the charm and appeal of sports — that we could pretend the outcome of a sporting competition really mattered when we knew in our heart of hearts that it really didn’t.

Take the two burning questions of the moment in these sporting precincts: (a) Will the Washington area get a major league baseball team to call its own, and (b) Can Joe Gibbs restore the Redskins to pro football glory? The answers matter mightily to many of us, yet in the broader context of real life they don’t matter at all. Regardless what happens in either case, we’ll all wake up the next morning with the same jobs, the same significant others and the same problems.

Sports once represented a temporary escape from all that was unpleasant in our lives. Now, sadly, that escape no longer exists.

Success in sports demands a clean body and mind, hard work and a lasting dedication to the fulfillment of a dream — the same qualities that used to bring success in life. In recent decades, these ideals often seem to have been forgotten — buried under a pile of avarice, arrogance and an overemphasis on self sometimes known as “attitude.”

Pope John Paul II is trying to remind us of all that is good about sports and could be again, to paraphrase James Earl Jones’ poignant line from “Field of Dreams.” For that, the pope deserves our profound thanks.

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