The unseemliness of sports is a recurring revelation in the worst of times. Depending on the level of darkness, games come to seem uncomely and indecorous if not improper and indecent. A small case of social unacceptability broke out last August.
On the same summer Thursday, the editorial pages of both The Washington Post and New York Times pictured George Bush at golf under war clouds. Momentarily, the vowel appeared to change in the Gulf Crisis.
The Times portrait was actually a drawing of Bush in his familiar baseball cap shooting across a skull-shaped hazard to a flagstick below the horizon. It accompanied a letter from a G.I. father, soon to be a leader of antiwar parents, who wrote to the commander-in-chief: "You seem to me to be both callous and ridiculous chasing golf balls and zipping about in your boat in Kennebunkport."
It seemed to others to be both callous and ridiculous when, on the day President Reagan was shot in Washington, the NCAA went ahead with its basketball championship game in Philadelphia. Sam Perkins, one of the stars for North Carolina, said Reagan meant little to him. He cared more for the murdered children in Atlanta.
Isiah Thomas of Indiana complained that the networks had preempted his afternoon soap operas. Television, or television concerns, helped make the decision to play. At the same time, on another network, the Academy Awards were postponed. Nobody knew if the Oscars had an impact on the NCAAs, but ratings theories were irresistible. "We'll be back at halftime of the basketball game," said a dazed and embarrassed newsman, "with an update on the president's condition."
When 11 Israelis were killed at the Munich Olympics in a horrifying microcosm of the Holocaust, the running, skipping and jumping ceased, but only for a day. Athletes voted to play on, as they always will. Olga Fikotova Connolly, a Czech discus thrower married to an American hammer thrower, spoke for most of them in sweet and simple terms. "When my mother died," she said, "I still had to do my housework."
A memorial service filled the 84,000-seat Olympic stadium except for one symbolic empty chair in the front row of the athletes' section. After a few notes of Beethoven, Olympic emperor Avery Brundage rose with a tone of defiance to announce the Games would continue. "We have only the strength of a great ideal," he said. "I'm sure the public will agree that we cannot allow a handful of terrorists to destroy this nucleus of international cooperation and goodwill we have in the Olympic movement."
When from there Brundage broke into an irrelevant harangue against commercialism, the columnist Red Smith cringed and dropped his head into his hands. "The old fool," Smith muttered to a companion. "He has turned a memorial service into a pep rally."
Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle's oft-stated regrets at having ordered football games two days after President Kennedy's assassination are striking and surprising, because the NFL's sense of what's seemly has never been notably acute.
Starting in 1967, when the country was desperate for a winnable war, Super Bowls made excess of everything, including patriotism. Fighter jets screeched over the ballparks. Paratroopers delivered the game balls. Battles were reconstructed at halftimes. Crewcut values finally reached clearcut results, and the revelry on the side would have earned a thumbs-up from Caligula.
To accommodate corporate merrymakers, the league rented empty race tracks and airports. "A gathering of strangers," as author Fred Exley observed on one occasion, "held at the absolute perfect place: an airport." Wandering out a wrong door, the old quarterback Sonny Jurgensen had to go through customs to get back into the party.
Another year in Houston, the game was relegated to Rice Stadium while the banquet took up the entire floor of the Astrodome. Fatted calves and pigs were roasted on spits as surviving cows and hogs milled teary-eyed in the foyer. During recent years, such paganism has declined somewhat. This year, there will be no party, even if there is a game.
Today's conference championships are also in slight doubt. Once again, television, or television concerns, will decide. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue will not be tormented by Rozelle-like regrets. He will leave those to network executives.
The first American combat casualty in Operation Desert Storm, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael S. Speicher, was a Florida State graduate from Jacksonville. In a taped greeting home last month, he made mention of the New Year's bowl games and signed off: "Go Seminoles!" If somewhere in that message is an argument for games, there is no heart for making it now.
But here is a piece of an opinion. President Bush was neither callous nor ridiculous last August when the country was sneering, when the "Today" show began a news report by saying: "As the deadline for closing the Kuwait embassy nears, President Bush should be closing in on the 14th hole."
He was thinking of shots, all right, but not golf shots. If golf served him in any way, it is the game of the year. And if sports has a place in the worst of times, that's it. The results of games have always been unimportant. But the games have always mattered. In seemly circumstances, usually in the spirit, they have a place.