The Final Fours, the Washington Redskins' free-agent signings, the hockey playoffs, the basketball races and the beginning of the baseball season -- they all compete for our attention these days with the war in Iraq.

Sometimes as I channel-surf or flip between the sports section and the front page, I am reminded that the way we talk about sports sounds like the way we talk about war.

Take football, for example. A young, strong-throwing quarterback is often described as having a "rifle" for an arm. A long pass is called a "bomb." Teams don't just have good players, they have "offensive weapons." And the most exciting games end in "sudden death."

Lately, it seems that the language of football has become even more violent. When a linebacker lays a bone-jarring tackle on an unsuspecting receiver, like you see on John Madden video games, people say that the linebacker "blew him up."

But it isn't just football. This kind of language is in all sports. Shortstops and hard-throwing pitchers are said to have a "gun." They use those strong arms to throw "bullets" to first base or home plate.

Basketball players don't just rebound. They win the "battle" underneath the boards by "attacking the glass."

And how many times a year do sports announcers breathlessly declare in the pregame show that some prize fight, hockey game or even a tennis match is going to be "a war"?

Even the nicknames of teams make our games sound like some kind of life-and-death struggle. The Warriors. The Raiders. The Sabres. The Cannons. The hard-slugging New York Yankees are sometimes called "The Bronx Bombers."

The language of the military tries hard to make war seem less horrible than it really is.

Bombs screaming out of the sky are called "ordnance." I heard an American soldier describe a tank battle by saying that "we proceeded to neutralize the enemy tank." I suspect, in the words of John Madden football, that they "blew it up."

And "collateral damage" does not hint at at the number of innocent men, women and children who are killed and maimed when one of our "smart" bombs veers off course.

Somewhere in the middle, the way we talk about sports and wars meet.

With all the talk about guns, bombs and sudden death, the language of sports makes it seem more serious than it is. We can almost forget that games are just games.

Meanwhile, the plain language we use to describe the very serious business of war can make all the killing and dying seem almost routine.

In the last few weeks, I have watched real bombs fall. They are not footballs soaring through an autumn sky. And sudden death in Iraq is not an overtime period in which everyone shakes hands and walks off the field.

No, like everyone watching the "battle under the boards" interrupted by the battle for Baghdad, I am reminded that our games are not wars and our wars are not games.

Fred Bowen writes KidsPost's Friday sports column and is the author of sports novels for kids.

Basketball's "battles" are not at all like war . . . . . . and the fighting in Iraq is not a game.