Big questions for thinking fans

Does it still matter, as we go to war, whether Kentucky or Texas wins the national men's basketball title? As much as it ever did.

Topics: Iraq, National security, Middle East,

How can we enjoy playing games under the clouds of war?

That would seem to be the thinking sports fan’s question as the NCAA Tournament begins Thursday, with American military action in Iraq having begun.

NCAA officials briefly and publicly contemplated postponing games if the shooting had started. Major League Baseball canceled a season-opening series between the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s that had been scheduled for next week in Tokyo, moving the games stateside later in the year. The famous red-carpet arrivals at Sunday’s Oscar ceremonies have been canceled for fear of setting an inappropriate tone, and ABC is postponing the traditional Barbara Walters pre-Oscar celebrity fawn-fest for the same reason.

When people are dying half a world away, does it really matter whether Kentucky or Texas wins the national men’s basketball title, or whether Sam Houston State or Wagner can pull off a colossal first-round upset out of the 15th seed?

The answer is no, it doesn’t matter any more than it ever does, which is not at all.

Except that it does matter. It matters because this is what we do, this is how we live our lives. There are always people dying half a world away and sometimes half a block away, or even closer. There are always serious issues, global, local and personal, that make the problems of an Oklahoma shooting guard with a pulled groin muscle not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

But we make room for the things in our lives that interest us. There’s no contradiction in worrying about what’s happening in Iraq and whether that new recipe you’re trying out works, nothing wrong with wondering whether you have enough money for that Elton John-Billy Joel concert at the same time you’re wondering whether the Bush administration is leading us into a quagmire in the Persian Gulf region, nothing to keep you from fearing, at the same time, for the lives of troops and civilians in Iraq and that your top-seeded alma mater will suffer an embarrassing first-round loss to some school you’ve never heard of.

Of course these fears and worries don’t carry equal weight. If we are thinking fans in the first place, we don’t need tragedies and conflagrations to, in the inevitable words of some coach, athlete or commentator during troubled times, “put sports in perspective” for us. Sports are already in perspective. They are part of our lives, those of us who care about them, but if we’re healthy, if we’re smart, if we’re engaged with the world, sports don’t rule our lives, they merely help give it color and shape, in the same way that the arts and tomorrow’s dinner and the soft spot right below a certain someone’s ear do.

I think it’s a little harder now to blithely enjoy the fun and games than it was before every major news event played itself out in real time on TV. It was easier to forget the troubles of the world, tune them out, when you didn’t have to literally tune them out. Walter Cronkite signed off the air. You weren’t forced to make that conscious choice to switch from CNN’s war coverage to CBS’s — or possibly MTV’s, according to one war scenario — basketball coverage.

The 1965 NCAA Tournament began four days after the first American combat troops landed in Vietnam, less than three weeks after the beginning of the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. World War II, which dwarfs the current situation in Iraq — as we hope it always will — caused the suspension of baseball games only on D-Day. The NFL played football three days after President Kennedy was assassinated. Maybe these were all mistakes. Perhaps more games should have been called each of those times. But I don’t think so.

And if you could buttonhole a soldier or Marine on the front lines today and ask him if the Tournament should be postponed, if we should focus all our attention on the war effort and forget the frivolity, I bet he would be shocked at the question. Of course the games should go on, I’m guessing they’d say, and how’s Kansas look?

I suppose I can be accused of trying to justify my existence with this argument. I cover sports and therefore sport is important. Salon has a man on the ground in Iraq, Phillip Robertson. He’s there on his own, not “embedded” with a military unit, and he got there by floating across the Tigris on an inflatable raft. What Robertson is doing is so brave, so important, so mind-boggling that I can’t even claim to be in the same profession he’s in.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not room for both of us in this world, and by that I mean there’s room for point guards as well as paratroopers, tomahawk dunks as well as Tomahawk missiles.

That’s how we enjoy playing games under the clouds of war. We fit both into our lives. It’s a luxury we have because the war isn’t being fought on our turf. We shouldn’t take it lightly. But we should take it.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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