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I'm sorry, but with respect I believe that if travel and security
issues could have been resolved, it was wrong of the sports
establishment to cancel games last week. To be sure, the decision
was well-intentioned, but we would have been better served by the
opportunity--the choice--to join with neighbors at a stadium to
escape our sadness for a moment, our breathless disbelief.

To attend a game at such a time would not be callous. To watch a
game on television would not mean that we care less for those who
have died and those who have lost loved ones. We would still
grieve. We would still be brokenhearted. However, we are human
beings, always contradictory in our emotions. We should not be
ashamed to be transported briefly from our sorrow and from this
mad encounter with evil.

The fact is, this is a land of diversity, and just as we
celebrate in different ways and worship in different ways, so too
do we mourn in different ways. Moreover, in most of our religions
customs for dealing with death have developed primarily to help
us, the ones left behind, to cope with our loss. So we have our
funeral gatherings: We eat and drink, smile, even laugh, coming
together to comfort one another as, in better days, we share the
same fellowship to express our joy. In times of widespread grief
such as these, a sporting event can provide the same kind of
catharsis. A game can serve a larger community as a wake does
family and friends.

We also should have been more careful not to let our personal
sorrow subvert a larger purpose. When Israeli athletes were
murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972, many Americans responded
as they did last week, demanding that the Games be canceled. But
many Israelis--including some bereaved relatives of the dead
athletes--were adamant in wanting the Olympics to proceed. Shut
them down and you grant the terrorists one more victory. That
same reality obtains here and now. We Americans are new to this
kind of horror. We might better listen to those who have suffered
closer and longer with the enemy.

In this country, though, people in sports--athletes, executives,
journalists--always feel at least a little guilty that we devote
our lives to fun and games. I think that self-consciousness
influenced many of us last week. Here was our chance to humbly
declare that we understood how really insignificant sports are in
relationship to what is always called "the real world." Actors,
who are no less sensitive or privileged than athletes, have a
better grasp of context: The theater knew its place and kept its
obligation. Broadway reopened last Thursday. The show must go on.
Laughter is the best medicine.

So too last week you could go to a movie, rent an Adam Sandler
video, sing along with MTV, visit a topless bar, eat at a
restaurant, gamble in a casino, play sports--do just about
everything, as always, except watch sports. In the end, by
denying us spectator sports, the very people who were trying so
hard to argue that sports weren't necessary puffed them up and
made them seem more significant. Ultimately there was a hint of
the moral sentinel in the bigwigs, telling us that they knew
what's good for us, that they feared that sport is such a
seductive drug that they couldn't trust Americans to sniff it,
lest we stopped caring about the real world.

Then the players--especially those in the NFL--called for special
dispensation. Whereas every other suffering American, from the
President to Broadway actors to Manhattan cops to airplane pilots
and flight attendants, had to go on working, pro football players
felt they had the right to boycott their jobs. In their
lugubrious self-absorption, they might for a moment have heeded
St. Francis: "Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled
as to console."

Sports, you see, really do matter. No, not the games themselves,
not even the players--but the harmonizing effect of sports upon
our society. Former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti (who was
Bud Selig's great friend) wrote, "Because no single formal
religion can embrace a people who hold so many faiths, including
no particular formal faith at all, sports and politics are the
civil surrogates...for [an America] ever in quest for a
covenant." A stadium is crucial for a democratic society because
it's where all classes and types of people come together, to mix
and share in a common public space. Calling off the games denied
us the opportunity for that precious and comforting assembly.

The Star-Spangled Banner is occasionally derided (most recently
here in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED) for being too martial. America the
Beautiful, with its honeyed pastoral images of idyllic farmland,
is sometimes rated a more appropriate national anthem. However,
it wasn't war that Francis Scott Key cheered. Rather it was the
stirring image of the broad stripes and bright stars, "still
gallantly streaming" despite glaring rockets and bursting bombs.

In times of sorrow and fear, the chance for Americans to gather
in any huge stadium, to stand together, bound together, provides
a powerful--even patriotic--nectar. To look around at friends and
strangers, Americans all, is to draw strength and find resolve;
it is to catch a glimpse, in that congregation, of happier times
and a brighter America ahead. Only a stadium offers that
potential for vision. In a way we all, in the great crowd, form
an American flag, a people proudly hailing for the world to see.

Could not the players, in particular, understand that? Could they
not see themselves in a role of spiritual service? The games by
themselves don't matter much. But they lure us together in easy
times, so it is right that we should use them to muster ourselves
and our spirits in moments of travail.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW Old Glory daysThe Rogers High Pirates in Spokane showed the flag before a game on Sept. 13.