Why do we Americans love the particular sports that we do?
And why do we fail to embrace other games that seem, on their intrinsic merits, to be just as good or better?
Recently, we've been offered some of the world's premiere events in cycling, track and field, women's golf and soccer. For worshippers of those sports, what could be more sublime than the Tour de France, the Goodwill Games, the U.S. Women's Open and the World Cup?
Yet most of us succeeded in ignoring them with a sublime indifference.
What individual athlete could be in better shape, a human One Muscle, than Greg LeMond, who's now won the Tour de France three times in five years. LeMond got about five seconds on my evening TV sportscast. Here comes Greg. There goes Greg. Nice going, Greg. So long, Greg.
Yes, it's a puzzle. What exactly does it take to interest Americans? How about a combination of huge crowds, fascinating local color and a constant threat of violence, plus strategic team play, constant controversy and colorful, gifted prima donna stars?
Sorry, don't try to peddle that World Cup stuff around here. Diego Maradona got lower TV ratings than The Farm Report. If the score is 0-0, the Neilson will be 0.0.
What does, in fact, dominate our sports conversations these days?
Nolan Ryan's 300th win, Pete Rose's jail term and George Steinbrenner's imminent public spanking.
Think how oddly provincial these midsummer baseball topics must appear from a non-American perspective. This person named Steinbrenner owns the worst team in baseball, not the best. Why would anyone care if he owned it or not?
We might explain that he doesn't just own any old team, he owns The Yankees. But does that help? The Yanks have only been to the World Series three times in the last 25 years. Nonetheless, to Americans Yankees news is big news. Even though Babe Ruth is dead and Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak will be 50 years old next summer.
The mega-media phenomena surrounding Rose and Ryan -- observed from enough distance -- could seem pretty mystifying, too.
After all, Rose is retired. The man hasn't played in years. And he was a poor manager. Sure, he's banned for life, but, in practical fact, what exactly is he being banned from? Being a local TV broadcaster? Yet when this man does some white-collar jail time for a tax fiddle, it leads every national newscast.
As for the Ryan mania, that must be hard to explain in London, too. His teams never win anything. And he doesn't win much, either. Won-lost record is a universal language. Even at the Lords cricket ground a 299-267 mark can't look too wonderful. If we explained, "Yes, but he throws very fast, he's a nice man, he's 43 years old and once every few seasons he has an almost-perfect game," would that really help?
American tastes in sports often seem delightfully perverse. For instance, when Britain's Nick Faldo wins a golf tournament in Scotland, the event is on TV live in America for eight hours.
With all due respect to Faldo's general fitness, it's doubtful that he, or any other leading golfer, could jog five miles without needing an ambulance in attendance. Yet he's gotten more air time and more ink than all the athletes in the Goodwill Games put together.
Yet the Goodwill Games, taking place in Seattle, feature many of the best pure athletes on earth. Little good it does them. This Olympic preview will do well if it rouses as much interest as the perenially popular Professional Bowlers Tour (a network TV staple since 1776) or some 'raslin' farce with Hulk Hogan and Cindy Lauper as a tag team.
Go figure. We'll follow golf, even when it's dominated by Europeans, but we'll ignore track and field, where Americans still hold a prominent place. The only time you'll hear about the Goodwill Games is if the American basketball team loses. That fascinates us. It's like we don't think people can grow to be 7 feet tall in any other country.
But if our hoop guys win, we yawn.
The most obvious theories of what Americans love evaporate as soon as we dream them up.
Are we xenophobic? Well, sure. But we'll largely ignore the American LeMond at the very moment we cheer Faldo. As a sports nation, are we male chauvinists? Yes, probably. That's certainly part of the reason that the Women's U.S. Open this month (and the LPGA Championships this week) won't get a fraction of the attention or affection they probably merit. The LPGA can't even compete in popularity with the Senior Tour men who need carts.
Perhaps sports isn't really about measuring athleticism as much as we'd like to think. Perhaps what we love in our games is familiarity. And the reason we love the familiar -- love it even more than pure excellence -- is because we can talk about it so much better.
At one level, games exist for the sake of final scores, world records and championships. But in another basic sense, they exist so that people can talk to each other, with sports as the ostensible subject under discussion.
The Senior Tour outstrips the LPGA because we feel so comfortable discussing Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer. Given any excuse, we'll choose the intimately known over the semi-known.
We feel a little guilty that we care so little about the World Cup or the Tour de France. But why should we? What would we have to say about these events, and these people, that would not be embarrassingly shallow?
The more we know about a subject the more interesting it generally becomes. And the more we want to know. The cycle feeds on itself. As a result, we love what we know. And we taste the unknown, even in sports, in small, manageable bites.
In a hundred years, LeMond may be a famous historical figure in American sports: The man who ignited our love affair with cycling.
But don't bet on it. The power of the familiar is enormous. As it should be. After all, games may be fun, but finding something to talk about with each other is downright important.