It's that time of year again, when our thoughts turn to that lovable plus-sized elf with the ruddy red cheeks, the white hair and the belly of jelly, the one who never needs an airplane.
No, actually, Santa Claus.
This holiday season the morals of a lot of athletes are lower than flounder droppings. The other day I heard a worried announcer say, "What must kids think of the way we adults are behaving?" But you really can't ask kids because when a kid is asked a question by an adult, the only thing the kid thinks is, How huge are this man's nostrils?
Kids trust Santa, though. They'll tell Santa anything. So I set out to conduct the Santa Sports Survey. Disguised as Saint Nick, I would spend 90 minutes at each of three Boys & Girls Clubs in metro Denver. I loaded the trunk with toys and trinkets, borrowed a Santa suit from the Cherry Creek Mall and called Susen Mesco of Amerevents.com, which runs one of the best Santa Schools in the country.
"Don't play Santa," she advised. "Be Santa."
She also said something odd. "Never ask what the children want for Christmas." Huh? "Ask, What would you like to tell Santa? Because a lot of times, what they want has nothing to do with toys. For instance, what will you do if a child says, 'Santa, I want you to bring my mommy back to life'?"
"You say, 'Sorry, Santa can't do that. But you know what? Sometimes our sleigh flies so high, we pass right by heaven. What do you want to tell your mom, and I'll give her a message.'"
I wasn't sure I was ready for this.
The clubs were all in poor sections of the city. At each club I was given a room and about 70 squirmy kids, ages six to 10. And right away I learned something--I make a lousy Santa.
"Who are you?" one girl asked.
"Since when does Santa drive a sedan?" a boy said, suspiciously.
"Uh, that hurts," another girl said as I tried to tickle her.
One kid wanted to know how old I was. "Just turned 1,310," I said. He went Frisbee-eyed. I said, "I know, I don't look that old."
"No, you do," he said.
One little girl wanted to know where Rudolph was. "Rudolph pulled a hammy," I said. "This year the sleigh is going to be guided by Sylvester, from the temp agency."
I kept trying to ask my state-of-sports questions, but I might as well have been asking about pork-belly futures. Not one of them knew about Barry Bonds's BALCO connection. In fact, if I were running baseball, I'd be worried. Not one kid had a favorite ballplayer. Not one of them wanted a bat or glove. Few of them even had favorite pros in any sport: Local hero Carmelo Anthony of the Nuggets was mentioned the most, followed by two Philadelphia stars, Terrell Owens of the Eagles and Allen Iverson of the Sixers. The athletes the kids most wanted to spend time with were their dads.
"Could you bring me a fishing pole so my daddy will take me fishing with him?" one little girl asked. Another wanted a soccer ball, "'cause I think my dad would play soccer with me then."
I kept trying to hit them with survey questions like, "Do you view athletes as role models in this age of ...," and they kept hitting me with real life.
"Santa, for Christmas could you make the bill collectors stop coming?" one boy said. "It makes my mom cry."
A little girl said, "Santa, could you bring us a new house? The one we have now leaks all the time."
Lots of kids wanted hats and shoes and coats. "I want clothes," said one boy. What kind? "The warm kind," he said.
Another kid wanted to be an NBA star and make "a million dollars."
"What would you spend it on?" I asked.
"Doctors," she said, "for my cousin. She's four. She has cancer."
I told one seven-year-old boy, "Last year I came by and you were still awake, so I had to go do Dallas first until you fell asleep. So this year I want you to go right to sleep."
And he said, "That's not true, Santa. Last year you forgot my house."
I learned nothing new about sports, but plenty about how spoiled my life was, how Scroogish my spirit, how narrow my vision.
One somber eight-year-old girl was making her first visit to the club. She'd been sent from another state to live with her uncles because there were "issues" at home. She looked as if somebody had just sat on her birthday cake.
"What can Santa make you this Christmas?" I asked her.
She turned and looked at me with huge, hopeful eyes.
"Happy?" she asked.
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I kept trying to hit them with sports survey questions, and the kids kept hitting me with real life. "Santa, could you bring us a new house?"
PETER READ MILLER