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For love of the games


All of us who love sports should drop to our knees and thank the sporting gods for Appalachian State. Not only did the Mountaineers beat Michigan in front of 108,000 hostile fans. Not only did they become first Division I-AA school to beat a top-five program since the invention of the forward pass. They also reminded us exactly how enchanted and how vivacious sports can be. All of us who love sports needed this game, even the good people of Ann Arbor.

Boomers got 1967, the sweet summer of love. We get 2007, the summer of sporting sludge. For gossip guzzlers and tabloid tokers, it's been pure bliss. For us simple folk who actually like sports, there is a manic yearning to shower with steel wool and be done with it. For those of us who can't stand turning to Perez Hilton for our sports coverage, who think far too much sports radio is geared toward tearing young athletes apart, there's a crying need for some kind of political framework to understand the current state of the games.

I'm more than aware that for many of us sports are our blessed escape from politics. We don't want sports and politics in the same sentence, the same zip code, the same universe. It's like hearing that Hillary Clinton cut a reggae album or Dick Cheney got a cornrow toupee.

But if nothing else, the preceding months have shown that the two worlds have become one, whether we choose to believe it or not.

On the surface, none of the buffet of bombast seems that political. Michael Vick's self-immolation after pleading guilty to dog fighting charges, blood-doping cyclists, or Tim Donaghy getting pinched by the Feds is hardly the stuff of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The satirical rag The Onion caught the mood with an article titled, "Barry Bonds home run scandal somehow becomes feel good story of summer."

So what is the grimy thread that strings together the noxious beads of summer? Well, as with all enigmas, we turn to the oracle of David Mamet. In his film Heist, Danny DeVito says, "Everybody needs money! That's why they call it money!"

In other words, the spectacular success of the sporting industry -- a business that dwarfs US Steel -- threatens sports itself. We have a crisis of excess that creates boundless bounty for winners, and the scrap heap for everyone else. That's why Donaghy wanted his piece, even if he had to go through the mob. That's why many cyclists, baseball players, and even golfers think it's crazy to not risk their health for a shot at greatness, because the alternative to greatness is anonymity.

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It's an industry that scours the poorest corners of the earth for talent from the villages of the Dominican Republic to the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. From the outer edges of Serbia to the basketball camps in China. It's a lifeline for so many, a one in a million lottery. That's why Vick -- and countless other players - - surround themselves with friends from their youth. The star athlete becomes the safety net everyone clings to, assuming he will be a life preserver instead of an anchor. The stakes for success have gotten to be too high and the price of failure too profound. Every risk becomes explicitly or implicitly appropriate, as long as you aren't caught. There are no grey areas. No one is paid to be pure.

Of course, it's always been about the bottom line. Damon Runyon wrote almost a century ago, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

Some of us were taught as kids that how you play the game matters above all else. The great Joe Paterno, who started coaching before the invention of dirt, once said, "What counts in sports is not the victory, but the magnificence of the struggle." If only that were so today.

If we are going to get beyond the summer of sludge then there needs to be a far more collective desire to demand change. We need to amplify the actions of athletes that don't fit the norm. People should know that NBA players Etan Thomas and Ron Artest just returned from Africa where they worked with HIV-infected kids and dropped off several tons of food. It's not pit bull fighting, but hearing about their journey is chicken soup, instead of hemlock, for the sporting soul.

We also need to channel our disgust onto far greater sporting crimes. It's a crime that the bridge in Minneapolis fell away two days before the groundbreaking on a $500 million dollar stadium. It's a crime that the good people of the Twin Cities were subsidizing the dreams for Twins owner Carl Pohlad, the richest owner in baseball.

It's a crime that football players are being diagnosed with Alzheimer's in their 30s.

It's a crime that a family of five needs to take out a second mortgage to go to a game.

It's a crime that any college coach worth anything needs to know who the best 12-year-old is in their region.

And lastly, it's a crime that despite all the billions produced by sports, physical education programs are being cut from public schools around the country. To paraphrase Mamet, everyone loves play. That's why they call it play. It's time to take the play back. Rewind and watch the joy with which the Mountaineers of Appalachian State played last Saturday. It's a joy that should be the rule, not the exception, when we speak of sports.