Of all the phrases that self-serve, none is more revered than “he would’ve wanted it that way.” This was the phrase used by defenders of the NFL decision to play its Sunday schedule November 25, 1963, as President Kennedy’s body lay in state in the Rotunda, though some teams elected to stand down that day. As a rule, we impute our motives to the dead and do what pleases us most. We are about to do the same in the name of the living.
The war for Iraq poses a different circumstance and summons a slightly different rationale. “They (the troops) would want it that way,” say those who opt for the full athletic schedule, the NCAA tournament, the NHL, NBA, U.S. Skiing championships. And all are going ahead. Only Major League Baseball has slightly altered plans, canceling the scheduled Oakland-Seattle opener March 25 and 26 in Tokyo. Announcing the change, Commissioner Selig is careful not to insult the host country by suggesting there are reasons of security while at the same time saying the games are off because it is the “safest course of action for the players involved.”
Team and fan safety evidently was a driving factor in the decision to proceed with the NCAA basketball schedule. NCAA President Myles Brand says he has consulted Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and after that conversation “we see no reason to make any alterations to our plan.” Brand also says, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the young men and women who are in the desert.”
Careful, now. This opens the argument. Are we playing simply because we can, because the Homeland folks are confident the venues will be safe? Once assured, what are other reasons for postponement or cancellation? Let’s try a few.
Respect. Respect for a volunteer service that is being required to put its life on the line in a war that rivals Vietnam in popularity. The same kind of respect that told some kickers in the NFL of 1963 it would be unseemly to advance on the ball at the same time a flag-draped casket of a slain president was going up to Capitol Hill. That the decedent was a fan was irrelevant.
That those struggling for Basra and eating sand are sports fans is also irrelevant. That the White House urges life to go on as if nothing happened is irrelevant. What matters is how a people express respect and regard for that other, now far-removed segment of society which is being asked to give life and limb in their name in a contest whose ramifications will reach far beyond the Final Four.
Asked what they think is a proper course on the cusp of war, the honchos of their sports repair immediately to the safety aspects of their games and venues. Not the question, Bud, Myles, and company. It ain’t up to Homeland. It is Heartland whereof we speak. Should we all be having fun, playing and watching games, while our brethren are engaged in that other, more deadly pursuit, which produces its own immutable statistics?
The conundrum of the question is especially evident in the case of CBS, which has paid or promised $6 billion to carry the NCAA basketball tournament in these years. If there is war action to report, it may have to shift the games to some of the several other networks owned by its parent, or to the sports network, ESPN, with which CBS has made an arrangement. Viewers may have to search out MTV, or TNN, or BET to watch basketball because that competing business in Baghdad has taken precedence and Rather has won the Blackrock battle of what is really relevant that night. Millions of dollars are involved. Millions and more to the schools whose amateurs are skilled enough to win. Which introduces another aspect to letting the games begin. It is not just because “they would want it that way.” It is also because the treasurer wants it that way.
As for the players: The college lads are not looking at a draft number that would put them in the sand alongside those who fight; many are looking at incredible numbers agents say they can get as signing bonuses in the pro’s. And the professionals themselves? Michael Jordan of the Wizards says “we can only do what the president has asked us to do — continue on with our lives.” Jordan does say, “We’ll all have a heavy heart. And we’ll hope it doesn’t last long.”
Yes. Let’s hope it doesn’t go to overtime, or extra innings, or any prolongation that might give us time to think, “Is this the right thing? Do I really want it that way?”
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