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Shirts and Skins

War Games

By Eddie Matz | Posted 3/26/2003

When I heard the news, I almost threw up: Myles Brand was seriously considering postponing the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Because President George W. Bush's 48-hour ultimatum was set to expire (and war set to start) a mere 16 hours prior to the start of the Greatest Sporting Event on the Planet, the NCAA president was actually contemplating the uncontemplatable.

During Brand's period of indecision, and ever since, American athletes, coaches, and officials from coast to coast--not just in college hoops--have been spewing forth all the requisite rhetoric. It comes in many forms, all of them eloquent in their own right, but basically it sounds something like this: When something like this happens, you realize how inconsequential sports are.

Bullshit.

It's times like this when sports become essential. Not that sports are the be-all, end-all of life as we know it--they're not. Truth is, all they are is a diversion. But at times like this, that's exactly what we need.

Because who wants to sit around and watch Dan Rather--stylish, youthful haircut or not--all day long? Who wants to be fed the same propaganda clips all day long? Who wants to obsess over all that's wrong with humanity all day long?

I certainly don't. Not all day long, anyway. Don't get me wrong--I fully support the men and women who are putting their lives on the line to protect our collective ass. The war is important. But the war--just like any war--is tragic, and I just don't need to be inundated with tragedy. Granted, we're all human, and every now and then I do get that demented rubbernecking urge, but between CNN, MSNBC, and the other 624 networks, I'm pretty confident that if I want to catch a little war coverage, it'll bonk me on the head before I've even had a chance to reach for the remote. Then, once the dark side of my being has been satiated, I want to know that I can escape to another world. I want to know that I can flick back to CBS and be distracted. Be entertained.

I'm not the only one. If you think the tournament is an important release for us here in the States, just imagine how therapeutic it is for our troops overseas when they get a dose of their favorite sport. Envision a war-weary foot soldier from, say, Oklahoma, who was fortunate enough to be in front of a TV set--even if only for three minutes--to watch part of 13th-seeded Tulsa's upset victory over fourth-seeded Dayton. Or picture a hungry and homesick helicopter pilot from, say, rural Maryland, who hurriedly slurped a few spoonfuls of soup for lunch while watching Drew Nicholas send up a rainbow prayer at the buzzer. Or consider the young serviceman who, as reported on CBS during the tourney's first weekend, had the opportunity to see his father's loving face in black-and-white referee stripes.

If anybody needs to be entertained, it's these people.

Which is why it's a shame that Major League Baseball decided to cancel the scheduled season-opening series between Seattle and Oakland in Japan. Apparently, there's a concern for the safety of the teams involved, as they'd have to travel overseas during such a time of unrest.

Pullllleeeease, people.

What kind of message does this send to our troops? Here they are, risking life and limb in the battlefields, essentially on a volunteer basis, while a few dozen prima donnas who are getting paid millions of dollars to play 18 innings thousands of miles away from the conflict are saying, "Nah, too dangerous. Let's bag it."

As far as I'm concerned, the powers that be have the thinking all backward. Instead of nearly postponing tournaments, instead of canceling games, they should be adding games. Any kind of games.

Seriously. How cool would it be if the Raiders and the Bucs got together and said, "Hey, let's play an April exhibition--a little Super Bowl rematch. Just for fun." Or how about if the Lakers and the Kings, on an off-day Saturday, hooked up with the folks at NBC for a little old-school edition of Superstars. The possibilities would be endless, the entertainment value immeasurable. Just think: Shaq vs. Vlade in the rowing competition. Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant vs. Rick Adelman and Chris Webber in doubles tennis. And of course the grand finale--Mark Madsen vs. Scot Pollard in the always-grueling obstacle course.

Sound like a stretch? Perhaps. But if Roberto Benigni taught us anything a few years back with his film Life Is Beautiful, it's that even in the most dire circumstances we need to be entertained. Especially in the most dire circumstances. And that's what sports do: entertain.

So here's hoping that the news channels stick to news, the sports channels stick to sports, and that everybody just shuts up and plays ball.

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