SANTA CLARA, CALIF. -- If you look outside the window of virtually any downtown San Francisco high-rise, you can see the war protesters, carrying their signs, sometimes battling with police. Not hundreds, as in Washington's Lafayette Park, but thousands. On Thursday alone, more than 1,000 protesters were arrested. City and police officials say they've never seen anything like it, not even during Vietnam.
The University of California at Berkeley, the unofficial capital of peace demonstrations during the late 1960s and early 1970s, is awake again. Alive, brimming, teeming with debate. Kids barely 18 years old are informed and angry, one way or the other. Classes, for the large part, have been canceled. Drive 30 or so miles south to Stanford University and it too is consumed with the Persian Gulf war, whether we should or shouldn't be there. Walkmans are turned to all-news stations. There is, above all else, passion.
No place in America is more politically aware and active than the Bay Area, whether the issue is civil rights, gay rights, women's rights, abortion rights, ecology, peace. What you think isn't as important as that you think, that you feel, that you know there's a world out there and not all is right with it.
You would assume that kind of awareness would be inescapable, even another 10 miles south of Stanford in Santa Clara, where the two-time defending world champion San Francisco 49ers report for work.
Against that backdrop, it was drop-dead stunning to arrive here and find that George Seifert has declined, all week, to talk about the war. Because, he says, it would be a distraction.
Seriously, that's his statement. Not, I've got mixed emotions, or my thoughts are with our men and women in the Gulf and their families, or doesn't football -- even though it's my livelihood -- seem trivial at a time like this when people are risking their lives? Nothing like that. Nothing at all. The war is a distraction. This is the coach of a football team, a leader of men, and he won't utter a single sentence about the single most important thing in our lives?
Actually, Seifert's silence was less offensive than Roger Craig's remark to start a session with reporters Thursday. "No war questions," he said. Craig, before now, has always seemed to be a rational, reasoned man whose priorities appeared in order. Now, we wonder. "They've got their war, we have our war," he said.
When a news crew approached defensive lineman Pierce Holt Friday to ask his thoughts on playing during such a distressing time, he said: "If you want to ask about the game, okay. I'll talk about the game."
Dave Waymer, a smart man, a Notre Damer who usually uses his head for something other than holding a helmet, said: "Just like those guys have their own fights on their minds, their own war, we have one too, on a smaller scale. We have to keep our focus. They're not live bullets, but if we get beat we're dead. They have to do their job and we have to do ours."
To be sure, many 49ers are not detached. Center Jesse Sapolu's brother-in-law is a Navy man stationed in the gulf this moment. Backup quarterback Steve Young and linebacker Matt Millen had expansive comments, as did nose tackle Fred Smerlas, who said: "My emotions are split. On one hand, a game seems so meaningless with guys dying. On the other hand, the game could serve as a distraction. I've heard that some guys would want to listen to the game on Armed Services radio."
But once again, we see too many people walking through life without a bit of perspective. Too often, those people play professional sports. When the principle of racial exclusion was at issue in Shoal Creek, Ala., last summer, too many golfers stuck their heads in a sand trap and worried only about the yips.
Up in Buffalo, Bills linebacker Darryl Talley told the National sports daily, "I think they should take care of what's going on over there in the Middle East and we'll take care of here on the field Sunday." Asked about possible terrorism, Talley said, "The only terrorists I see coming are the Raiders."
Golfers and football players, while public figures, perhaps shouldn't be judged on how eloquent they are on matters of domestic or foreign affairs. But they do have cable. Newspapers are delivered to the club headquarters. It's not too much to ask to be able to talk intelligently about your country being at war if asked. Any eighth-grader ought to be able to do that.
Maybe some of these coaches and players have strong feelings and definite ideas about the Persian Gulf but would rather not get into expressing them this week, thus diverting attention from their jobs of earning a trip to the Super Bowl. Maybe, as one 49er suggested, "Block out everything, forget everything and just win -- that's how the 49ers got to be the 49ers."
Maybe men who achieve greatness in an arena as tough, as demanding as football are best served by subscribing to a single-mindedness, by tunnel vision. Perhaps on some level there is something perversely admirable about being able to completely, even if temporarily, block love, hate, death, divorce, family, war from interfering with a specific pursuit.
To those who consciously suppress their feelings about this war for the sake of preparing for these games, we can say we understand, though it's distasteful. To those who really believe that this relatively unimportant sporting battle is somehow akin to what our troops are waging in the gulf, we borrow a line from the end of Spike Lee's "School Daze": wake up !