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The chilling advent of war puts sports in perspective

I sit on the floor while I watch the war on television. This is where I sit during the biggest moments of the biggest games of any season, drawn out of my seat by the excitement, wanting to be as close to the screen as possible. I sit on the floor all the time now.

In my hand is the clicker. I can control the pictures that appear in front of me. Then again, I cannot. I watch Charles Jaco in Dhahran. I watch Wolf Blitzer at the Pentagon. I watch a still picture of Peter Arnett while he makes a censored report from Baghdad. Click. I watch Marv Albert at the NHL All-Star Game, in Chicago. Click. I watch Richard Blystone in Tel Aviv.

The things that were so very important two weeks ago, a month ago, seem so small now. Click. There is Billy Packer. He is talking about Sean Rooks, a basketball player from Arizona. Click. There is the Israeli deputy foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, talking about possible retaliation for the Iraqi missiles that have landed in his country.

I do not care so much anymore which teams have made it to the Super Bowl. I do not care so much if the Super Bowl is played. What's the big debate about whether or not the game will be played? Go ahead. Play. Who cares? I do not care so much about the latest Big East matchup. I do not care about which baseball player has signed which contract with which team for whatever number of dollars. Click. The network crews in Jerusalem are putting on those gas masks again.

I want to let myself go where I always have gone, but I cannot. I am a middle-aged man who has spent most of his life pulling the newspaper apart as soon as it landed on the doorstep in the morning. I have called the front page a fine and thoughtful wrapper to keep the sports section dry. I have said, many times, "I check the front page headline, just to see if we're at war, then go to the only news that really counts." I don't have to check anymore. The sports section is what is dropped to the side now.

I watch the war before I eat breakfast. I watch the war after I have brushed my teeth at night. I switch briefly to the other stations—click, somebody just scored a basket for DePaul against Texas, nice shot—but I dance right back to CNN and the war. I cannot stay away. Click.

There is a picture on the screen, "just in" from the French air force. The camera has been mounted on a fighter plane. The announcer tells us to look at the lower lefthand side of the screen. The plane seems to be drawing closer and closer to a large building with a large garage door on the front. The announcer tells us to keep watching the lefthand corner. A bomb appears. The garage door and building explode. The announcer calls for a replay. An expert delivers expert commentary on the weaponry involved and the skill of the pilot.

I am struck by the similarities between the coverage of this war and the coverage of sports. The replay. The retired expert. The anchor-desk banter. I also am struck by the essential difference. All of this is real. The tension is real, the emotions are real, the stakes are real.

Was there ever a more compelling group of men in a broadcast booth than Arnett, John Holliman and Bernard Shaw reporting from the ninth floor of Baghdad's Al Rasheed Hotel during the first night of the bombing? Shaw described how, when he watched football games in his neighborhood tavern, he would say, "You couldn't pay me enough to do what those guys do." He said he would change places with Joe Montana for free now. Real.

In an instant, the devalued language of our games has been appropriated, and the words have been returned to their true, deadly meanings. A rocket is a rocket. A missile is a missile. A bomb is a bomb. I keep wishing that Bill Walsh or John Madden were back in charge, telling me why the X's did such against those O's. Instead, the X's have become little war planes, the O's little missiles. They are moved by one of the experts around a topographical map. Boom! Pow! I wish the sound effects were from Madden. I wish.

Click. I still can see Madden, of course. Click. I can see Walsh. Click. Here is Bob Trumpy, right now. He is standing on the field at the Hula Bowl. He is wearing some kind of walkie-talkie contraption on his head. He seems so silly. Click. Here is some British footage. British navy planes have destroyed some mines in the water. There's the mine. Boom! The mine is gone. Click. Here is some women's ski race from Europe, part of "The Road to Albertville." Albertville? Click. Here is the President of the United States. He is getting out of a limousine in front of the Pentagon.

I stare at the pictures as if I am Alice, drawn down a rabbit hole into some dreadful Wonderland; as if I am Dorothy, pulled from Kansas by a terrible tornado. Up has become down, and left has become right, and a hero does not wear expensive gym shoes anymore. Click. I am like everyone else. I try to listen to familiar voices for reassurance and fun, but they simply don't sound the same. We all have become prisoners of real life.