Teach the Afghans the pick and roll!

The corny sentiment and just plain vulgarity of Western sports would do wonders for the more stiff-necked elements of Islamic society.

By Allen Barra

Published September 19, 2001 7:03PM (EDT)

First off, I want to thank the editors of Salon for not making me write one of those bullshit "A tragedy like this makes you understand how insignificant sports really is" pieces last week. I've always agreed with Robert Duvall in "The Paper" that sometimes the best thing a columnist can do is to "shut up," and last week seemed like a good time. Sports fans (which, by one definition or another takes in a vast majority of the people in this country) don't need to be told over and over that mass murder puts the importance of a football game in perspective; I really don't think that the question of whether some games should be played at a time of mourning was an issue for fans or nonfans until the moral idiots who run the sports leagues made it one by discussing it in public. I mean, do you know anyone who really thought games should have been played last week?

Well, I do; Mike Lupica was declaring it all over ESPN, and before you send him a letter bomb, let me say that he had a point when he told Dick Schaap on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" that "We attach entirely too much significance to games to assume it matters whether or not they're played at a time like this." Actually, I take it back; I thought there was a point there when I first heard it, but now I'm not sure there is. Yes, we often do attach entirely too much meaning to games, but in this instance I hope Lupica meant that the outcome of ballgames matters little at times like this. But then why argue that the games should be played? Perhaps I misconstrued his point, which was that playing matters but that at such times the outcome of games is insignificant. But, then, considered against the larger scheme of things, who wins or loses a game matters little at any time. It shouldn't take a war or an act of terror to teach us that.

If Lupica meant that sports, taken in a larger sense, don't matter in times like this, I think he is very wrong, and so are people who ask, in defiance of all historical evidence, questions like, "Will it ever be normal again? Can we ever feel the same way about sports again?" as if they were the first people in history ever to witness a tragedy or feel a sense of loss. Sports are precisely what helps things become normal again. If I were a terrorist aiming at disrupting life in the United States, targeting sports would be at the top of my list. The way most of us feel about sports pretty much defines who we are, or at least, who we'd like to think we are -- tough, fair, hard-nosed, but good-natured and forgiving in the end -- and to suddenly lose sports would deprive us of at least a part of our national identity. No matter what our complaints may be about the excesses of big-time sports, suddenly trying to get along without them would be a shock to the system as severe as almost anything else that could be imagined.

It's significant that the part of the world we are about to go to war in is the one least affected -- I'd like to say "softened" -- by the presence of big-time sports. Yes, there has been a good soccer team now and then, but it's difficult, on the whole, to think of any athlete in any sport in the Middle and Far East who has attained real fame. I can picture almost any area in the world being better suited to, say, host the World Cup or the Olympics than Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or even Pakistan, and wouldn't a national sports hero or two in those events give children in that region some better role models? It's a shame, really, that they haven't joined the wonderful world of 21st century sports, because the outpouring of cheap emotion and just plain vulgarity that follows in the wake of these would do wonders for the more stiff-necked elements of Islamic society.

Take Afghanistan, for instance. I have it on good authority that Afghans are fine people with many wonderful qualities, but talk about sports-impaired! They really have yet to progress much beyond an ancient national game called "buzkachi," which was developed by Genghis Khan's tribesman to promote horsemanship and teamwork. There were variations, but basically the game, as it were, involved two teams using spears trying the knock the head of a defeated enemy across a goal; as the Mongols became more civilized, the head was occasionally removed from the rest of the body. For the Afghans' part, they refined the game to the transport of a water-soaked, decapitated goat from goal to goal.

For some as yet unexplained reason -- my own guess is that it lacked that certain indefinable element of glamour that world-class empires look for in their national games -- buzkachi never caught on outside of Afghanistan (though in India it evolved into "pulu" or polo). Talk about a people badly in need of some national pastimes.

Forget about cutting back on games here; maybe we should look to getting them involved over there. Before we drop bombs on them, maybe we should try some basketballs.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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