If John Thompson isn't a racist, what would you have to do to be one? In 18 years at Georgetown, he's seldom had white players on his team. That speaks for itself. Check the ratios, not the rationalizations. Isn't that what he'd say if the situation were reversed? He must not like whites. Or he must want his basketball scholarships to go to blacks. Or he must be trying to make some kind of statement.

Thompson says he's recruited whites, but they don't come. Maybe they don't want to play for a black coach on a mostly black team. That's their problem. Maybe they don't want to play in his system -- pressure defense, fast break, constant running and jumping. Maybe coaches bad-mouth him to white parents. White players have said that family members tried to keep them from going to Georgetown.

Knowing how much he hates racism, and has been hurt by it, I just don't think he could look himself in the mirror if he acted that way himself. His top assistants, like Bill Stein and Craig Esherick, have usually been white. His team's academic adviser, Mary Fenlon, the person closest to him in the whole program, is white. He's been honest about so many other things for so long, why can't we give him the benefit of the doubt on this one?

If he's not racist, then try to tell me he's not paranoid. How come his players almost never talk to the press? And when they do, how come they sound like they're parroting the company line? Have you heard a Georgetown player say anything spontaneous or funny?

Thompson doesn't think 20-year-olds should be celebrities just because they can dribble. He doesn't think they have anything to say that the world needs to hear. He says, "You come to Georgetown to learn, not to teach." He'll do anything to keep them humble so they don't turn into jock bums when they don't make the NBA. And it works. His players aren't ego crazy. Even Patrick Ewing. They adjust to the real world. His kids take entry-level jobs and work up. They don't think somebody should give them the whole store because they played for Georgetown.

Come on -- if Thompson doesn't think the world's out to get him, how come his teams get in so many fights? You could make a cheap-shot highlight film just on Georgetown.

I'll give you that one -- they do fight too much. Even if they're provoked, they should turn the other cheek. There are ways to retaliate without having a brawl. Life provokes everybody. That's no excuse.

The problem is Thompson's temper. Last season they lost the Big East title because he got so many technical fouls that Syracuse got a 10-point play. Georgetown teams pick up the short fuse from the coach. But if Thompson didn't have his temper, he also wouldn't have such an acute sense of outrage. He wouldn't be such a good social critic and athletic reformer.

I still think the Hoyas would be better off if he'd taken the money and gone to Denver.

The NBA's loss is Georgetown's gain. Big-time coaching is a tough world, but Thompson's found a way to do three things: win a ton of games; turn out decent, hard-working student-athletes that any college would be proud of; and stand up for his principles. He'd be next to impossible to replace.

IS THERE ANY WASHINGTONIAN, NO MATTER HOW little he or she cares about sports, who has not heard a debate very much like this one?

These days, sports may be what Americans talk about best. With the most knowledge. The most passion. The most humor. The most distance. The most capacity for a cheerful change of mind. When we meet someone for the first time, it's no accident that sports becomes the subject so often and so quickly. Yes, it's an easy, superficial topic -- if we want it to be. But talking about sports has also become one of our best ways of probing people, sounding their depths, judging their values.

Games are about who won, who lost and how. But they're also about what's right, what's wrong and why. When we talk about sports we often find ourselves discussing what might be called the common-sense ethics of everyday living.

If the subject, both on the sports page and around the dinner table, is not John Thompson, then it might be Joe Gibbs, John McEnroe, Bobby Knight, John Riggins, Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner, Pete Rose, Dino Ciccarelli, Len Bias, Sugar Ray Leonard, the Ripken family, Jack Kent Cooke or Lefty Driesell. Is there any stratum of Washington society, or any social setting, in which any one of these names would not be known instantly to almost everyone in the room?

And it's not just names that we know. It's the whole fabric of these people's lives that interests us. We can't get enough detail. If you want to frighten yourself, compare your knowledge of the Supreme Court with your knowledge of the Redskin offense, right down to the Hogs. Think about the Bush Cabinet. Now think about the Orioles. Which careers do you follow in more depth? And the Orioles play in another city.

We reveal ourselves most through the things we know best. Which sports or teams or athletes do you love? Or hate? And why? When Spike Lee plays Mars Blackmon, he knows he has to pretend to despise Larry Bird. President Bush has followed the bedraggled Houston Astros for years; is that a tip-off that he's more Texan than preppy?

What issues make you see red: overpaid players or greedy owners? Strikes or franchise shifts? Be careful. You tip your hand every time you open your mouth. Are you generous or jealous, judgmental or broad-minded? Talk sports and it will slip out. Which losers do you instinctively defend: Old Tom Landry, put out to pasture? Or those miserable choking-dog Broncos? Oooops.

Because sports is a subject about which we feel deeply, yet usually pretend not to care too much ("It's only a game"), it has become perhaps our richest and most user-friendly topic of conversation. Especially when the subtext is moral. And how many conversations about sports lack a moral undertone? The question underlying every event, even for athletes, is: Who deserves to win? "Deserves," that is, in the broadest sense. To an athlete, this often means: Who has developed his available talent most fully? To a team, it can translate as: Who interacts best as a group? If you have trouble perceiving yourself as truly worthy of victory, you'll have great difficulty reaching your goals.

A large part of a sportswriter's job, although it is seldom acknowledged, is to present, as clearly as possible, the central characters and issues in what amounts to an ongoing national discussion about mores: How do we act and how should we act.

Not so long ago, such discussions in this country were couched in specifically religious terms. The frame of reference was, more or less, the Bible with its commandments, allegories, cautionary tales and parables. The prodigal son, David and Goliath, doubting Thomas or the story of Ruth might be invoked at the dinner table. Today, where would we reach first for material or metaphor to make such points to our children? Probably to sports.

Why? Because millions of Americans know more about the achievements, failures, embarrassments and private lives of athletes than they know about anyone on earth except their family and friends. Even national politicians and celebrity entertainers are not covered on such an intense daily basis for such a long time, sometimes for decades. Athletes and coaches take it for granted.

Americans frequently talk about sports as though it was an extension of their own private lives -- because it feels like it is. When fans meet famous athletes for the first time, the assumption of familiarity is so total that players are sometimes alarmed. No wonder fans feel so free to ask for autographs in restaurants. There's almost no sense of distance to break down.

Why, this is just butter-fingered old Joe, the good-block, no-catch tight end. He fumbled in the Rose Bowl, went into drug rehab when he was with the Raiders, got traded to the Redskins during training camp and now picks up a few bucks by trading quips with the anchorman on the local news. We know him better than plenty of our cousins.

Many of us, perhaps unconsciously, are attracted to this peculiarly modern possibility -- long-distance intimacy. Mass media have given us a chance to observe the essential behavior of other people in a core area of their lives for years on end.

I can't believe that your father, an intelligent man, sits there every Sunday, year after year, rooting for the stupid Washington Redskins. He shows more emotion during those silly games than he does in the rest of the year combined. He's getting too old for this. If the Redskins keep coming up with kickers who miss extra points, I'm afraid I'm going to find him dead, sitting right in that chair in front of the TV.

Don't worry, Mom, he'll probably stay alive an extra 10 years just to see if they get back to the Super Bowl. Come on, you watch too. You know you do. When Doug Williams was hurt against Denver and he got up and threw all those touchdown passes, you were crying. When Riggins made that long run to beat the Dolphins, you were out on the front porch, just like everybody else on the block, banging that big cooking pot with a spoon.

I come into the room periodically. I do not watch. It's too disturbing for me to see your father so upset. He takes it personally. That's the only time he ever curses. He's 5-foot-7 and played last-string quarterback in high school 60 years ago, and for the last 15 years he's thought he was Dave Butz every Sunday. I married a man who could recite "Paradise Lost," and now he says, "Maybe they should take Dexter Manley back. A good pass rush is hard to find." He wouldn't say a thing like that about anything but the Redskins.

And I never approved of John Riggins. He was a ruffian before he ever said, "Loosen up, Sandy baby." I just thought he had a certain dignity as a player.

Is this the same woman who went to see Duke University in the Rose Bowl 50 years ago?

What's that got to do with it? The point is, I'll never understand your father. Joe Gibbs is just the sort of fundamentalist zealot that he's abhorred his whole life. And to root for Joe Theismann -- that self-absorbed little twit!

Cathy Lee Crosby left him.


WITH TENS OF MILLIONS OF EXCEPTIONS, SPORTS IS still more a fascination for men than women. That only underlines our point. Men can't find any other subject where they can reveal themselves so much, yet pretend that they have said so little.

What, if not sports, moves men beyond self-consciousness, beyond hipness, beyond self-protective intelligence and turns them into vulnerable, ventilating human beings? Any woman who marries a man with no favorite team, no childhood hero, no incurable need to call Sportsphone at 1 a.m. (that's 212-976-1313), should consider herself fairly warned. She may have hooked a cold fish.

For both sexes -- but especially for males -- sports is an area in which we can be philosophical without pretending to own a philosophy. Because sports congratulates itself on being trivial, even creating the "trivia question," we allow ourselves the luxury of unsystematic insight.

We welcome new evidence about complex personalities. For instance, we'll wait 20 years to form our final opinion of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, allowing him to change, grow and finally reveal himself to us as an adult. For once, we care about learning as well as passing judgment. Oh, we rush to judgment, to be sure. But with a self-deprecating smirk. We've been wrong so often about so many people, teams and games. We're willing to be proved wrong again.

Where but in sports do we offer an impassioned opinion, then immediately add the proviso, "but if I knew what I was talking about, I wouldn't have to work for a living. I'd just move to Vegas and get rich."

At a dinner party recently, I heard a well-known political columnist and a Supreme Court nominee discuss both baseball and Lithuanian independence in the same hour. Their passion about and knowledge of both subjects were large. But the baseball discussion was perceptive, flowing, progressive -- a joint pursuit of gentle insights. The conversation moved forward, exploring new areas, then returning to earlier points. Voices were never raised, though there was plenty of laughter.

On Lithuania? Let's just say that, although no one in the room claimed to have visited Lithuania or to know any Lithuanians personally, everyone who voiced an opinion seemed absolutely certain about, and emotionally invested in, every point. After a few minutes, someone said, "Perhaps we should get back to talking about sports."

If you can't talk sports -- national sports, local sports and even neighbor- hood sports -- you may feel like a social outsider in many parts of this country. In fact, sports has become central to what remains of our American sense of community. In an age that is a political, religious, artistic and cultural kaleidoscope of relativist values, how can we feel united? What can we agree about? Or even discuss calmly, yet enthusiastically, with a sense of shared expertise and a glimpse of a shared ideal?

Sports has such a profound hold on people these days because it has never been so desperately needed. In a century that has banished certainty in almost every corner of our lives, in a time when, one after another, almost all our compasses have been demagnetized, there is an enormous collective yearning for a sense of orientation.

We're not expecting truth, doctrine or dogma, mind you. "Isms" have had a bad credit rating for a long time. We'd just like to get our bearings occasionally, thank you very much. We've learned to make little things suffice. For instance, it is reassuring to know that, as long as George III owns the Yankees, they will never be in another World Series.

Somebody's got to get Cal Ripken Jr. out of the lineup before this stupid consecutive-games streak ruins him. He used to be a great player. Now he's turning into a bum. Every year he hits a little less. It's wearing him out. It's too much pressure. And for what? He's not going to catch Lou Gehrig. Does he really think he's going to play every game for the next five years? By June of 1995, he'll be 35. Nobody can play every game for more than 13 years in a row. Especially at shortstop. He's obsessed with breaking this unreachable record that'll make him famous forever instead of doing what's best for the team.

Why should Cal come out of the lineup when he's not hurt? He's still their best player. He hits 20 homers, drives in 90 runs and plays a great shortstop every year. Stop bitching. What do you want? The streak's not the problem. Sometimes he slumps in May. Is he exhausted in May?

Why don't you value the streak? Why not enjoy it? Can't you recognize greatness when you see it? Even if The Streak did hurt Ripken a little, some things are more important than worshiping team play. What's a few points on a batting average anyway? If Ripken DID break Gehrig's record, and accomplished most of it at shortstop, people would talk about it and be amazed by it long after anything that the Baltimore Orioles of the 1980s and 1990s could possibly do was forgotten.

The problem with Cal Junior is Cal Senior. For years, the old man wouldn't stop coaching the kid. When your son is 30, you let him go, let somebody else, who knows more, help him to the next level. The father isn't a hitting coach. But he wouldn't let anybody else work with him. And what's wrong with Junior's backbone? Why did he wait until this summer, after he was totally messed up, to say, "Dad, I'd like to try some new ideas. I'm going to work with Frank Robinson."

The real problem with Ripken's hitting is the lousy lineup he's been in for years. When he had big-timers in the No. 4-5-6 slots, he was relaxed and a terror. When he and Eddie Murray were all that was left, he started to strain. And when Eddie left, his bad habits became real flaws. Cal's such a straight arrow, so responsible, that he thinks he has to do it all. He's lost all idea of the strike zone. With the bases loaded, just watch him. He's so overanxious he's an automatic out.

He's too selfish.

He's too unselfish.

WHEN WE WANT TO ASK SIMPLE BUT embarrassing questions, we often turn to sports for analogies and limited practical insight. How should a person live? Or face tragedy? What constitutes a useful life? To many moderns, such topics might instantly run the risk of sounding more comic than cosmic. But sports, with its artificial simplicity, its final scores, its winners and losers, prods us away from our resigned acceptance of ambiguity, at least for a while.

We may not know how all men should live, but we know that Magic Johnson embodies unselfishness and a joy-in-task that we might see as a useful model. We may not know how we would cope with tragedy until we meet it, but the memory of speed skater Dan Jansen competing in the Olympics on the same day that his sister died might be of some use to us. Jansen fell, raced again three days later and fell once more, yet seemed ennobled by his effort.

In games, we often discover the implicit values and powerful preferences that we hold in common, even though we seldom express them. We all sense that Michael Jordan and Julius Erving have special qualities. When we try to find words for what those estimable qualities are, we educate ourselves about ourselves.

And when we want to focus on how NOT to live, when we want to isolate and understand what is destructive or unacceptable behavior, where do we turn? Not to our legal system certainly. There, the concept of an individual's responsibility for his actions is so attenuated as to be almost nonexistent. In sports, the individual still must answer for himself. Neither a broken home nor a bad hop helps you beat the rap.

Perhaps, 200 years ago, the average American could have mentioned the latest doings of Sam Adams or Thomas Jefferson and assumed that his neighbor would know all about these men, their lives and their ideas. Politics was a common ground on which citizens of the republic could meet. Today, it's arguable that sports has overtaken both politics and religion as the meeting ground where we debate our values.

Before you laugh, fly over cities like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Diego, Detroit, Cleveland, Phoenix, Tampa, Miami, Seattle, Kansas City and many others. Look for the primary architectural symbols: cathedrals, statehouses, ballparks. You'll see the ballparks and stadiums first. They're the structures that dwarf everything else. Only when you come to America's "world class" cities -- New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco -- do you find the coliseums on a common scale with other monuments and skyscrapers.

Let somebody else blow a brain lobe figuring out whether this news is depressing or encouraging. What's indisputable is that, in the last 30 years, thanks to TV and our whole mass media explosion, America has become infatuated with a vast, open-ended subject on which millions of people are experts. As spectators, we all observe the same behavioral laboratory together.

This may explain why sportswriters with even a hint of a political, religious, philosophical or even generational agenda tend to disappear quickly. Sports is too specific, too detailed, too reality-tested and -- above all -- too thoroughly known by too many people for media pundits to get away with much. As soon as you start to overstate your case, you can hear the screams from the street. You can't fool many of the people much of the time about Ray Leonard's last fight. They saw it, by God. Just like they've seen all his others since the 1976 Olympics. Some watched the replay too.

Our mass infatuation with sports may also explain the ironic fact that a columnist writing on the editorial page about Congress and a sportswriter holding forth on the affairs of the Washington Redskins are often held to different standards. A case can be made that greater accuracy, far more disclosure of sources, less appearance of conflict of interest, a less predictable pattern of partisan bias and crisper writing are generally expected of the sportswriter.

In sum, great athletes in late 20th-century America have -- without knowing it or wanting it -- been put in something akin to the position mythic or religious figures occupied in other cultures and times. That is to say, they have taken on a symbolic quality: They play the role of surrogates in our thinly veiled ethical conversations.

For them, no doubt, this is a mixed blessing -- and a kind of celebrity squared. But for the public, is the trade so bad?

Are the issues that our passion for sports helps us to discuss -- with knowledge, good cheer, honesty and without the weight of dogma -- really as trivial as we like to pretend?

Sugar Ray Leonard is crazy. His brains aren't scrambled yet, but they will be -- just like Muhammad Ali's. Boxing kills them all in the end. It's like a drug. The more they fight, the more they need to fight. Even when they don't need the payday, they need the glory. In a culture where a man is defined so heavily by the job he does, almost everybody becomes the thing that he does.

For a fighter, it's even worse than for a doctor or lawyer. He gets enormous positive feedback when he fights and wins. He gets no feedback -- he disappears as a human being -- when he stops fighting. Retirement is social annihilation.

Leonard will keep fighting Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler until nobody will pay to see him anymore. He may still be fighting in 1995. Write it down. Just watch.

Maybe if you were ever as good at anything as Leonard is at prize fighting, you could understand that, sometimes, self-expression is worth great risks. Leonard has done things in the ring, like the 14th round of Hearns I, that even he never dreamed he could do until he was forced to do them. He can live life at a level -- for a short time -- that the rest of us can't imagine.

If ski jumpers, downhill racers, automobile drivers and bobsledders will risk their lives for the adrenalin high that they get from speed, think of the rush that Leonard experiences when he's in a firefight with Hagler.

Ray Leonard is crazy. He'll end up punch-drunk and die too young.

Sugar Ray is an artist. He'll be remembered in a hundred years, and, no matter what happens, he wouldn't trade a minute of it.

Thomas Boswell is a columnist for The Post's Sports section. His latest book, Game Day, will be published by Doubleday this fall.