Fun and Games
  by  Gene Lyons        November 7, 2001

Everybody says that nothing will ever be the same again after September 11. Maybe so, even if some of the people who say it sound awfully smug, as if dread events have at last confirmed their own self-importance. Down at the University of Mississippi, however, they still pick their cheerleaders the old-fashioned way. No post-Title IX political correctness in Oxford, no suh. (Title IX is a federal law mandating gender equity. Jock school chauvinists blame it for everything but athletes foot.) Judging by the lineup of tearful blondes kneeling on the sidelines during the seventh overtime of Saturday's epic Arkansas-Ole Miss game, they must have chosen the squad by holding a Sharon Stone lookalike contest limited to sorority girls. They were an inspiring sight, all those perfectly coiffed Chi O's and Tri-Delts, oddly reassuring in their anachronistic way, and almost enough to make a man forget that Sen. Trent Lott was once an Ole Miss cheerleader.

One of the great wrong-headed essays ever written by George Orwell was called "The Sporting Spirit." I re-read it sometimes to innoculate myself against literary hero worship, a detriment to clear thinking. Orwell wrote it after an acrimonious tour of Great Britain by a Russian soccer team in late 1945, when both countries had scarcely begun to recover from the suffering of World War II.

"Even the newspapers," Orwell noted "have been unable to conceal the fact that at least two of the four matches played led to much bad feeling."  There had been fistfights between players, bitterly argued referees' decisions, and allegations of what we'd call recruiting violations. With few exceptions, Orwell noted, sportswriters for right-wing papers accused the Russians of cheating; the left-wing papers defended them.

A friendly match on the village green, Orwell argued, was one thing. But as soon as national chauvinism got involved, along "with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige," all hell was apt to break loose. He professed amazement at whole "nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe-at least for short periods-that running, jumping, and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue."

Sounding for all the world like the King of Brobdingnag lecturing Lemuel Gulliver on the absurd pretensions of puny little humans, Orwell contended that: "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words, it is war minus the shooting."

Oh yeah, well how about them Hogs? The rowdy group of young men who watched the Arkansas-Ole Miss game game at our house didn't want to declare war on Mississippi. They did mention driving over to Oxford to comfort those cheerleaders.

Now I have seen a drunken English soccer mob in action, and I don't believe I'd buy tickets to see Iran vs. Israel in World Cup soccer unless they played in Buenos Aires, but for the right-thinking Arkansas sports fan, last weekend was absolutely perfect. Not only did Houston Nutt's team prevail in the Mississippi melodrama (ESPN Classic televise it again Friday at 7 P.M.), but on Sunday, the Arizona Diamondbacks won an equally thrilling 9th inning, Game 7 victory over the New York Yankees in the most memorable World Series since 1975.

Arizona not only did the National League proud, but demolished the derisive ex-Cub theory first promulgated by the late Mike Royko. It held that in any playoff series, the team with the most former Cubbies invariably lost. On Sunday night, an ex-Cub pitcher named Batista recorded a crucial 8th inning out, ex-Cub Mark Grace got the hit that started the Diamondbacks' 9th inning rally, and ex-Cub Luis Gonzalez drove in the winning run. Can a Cubs World Series triumph be far behind?

The first thing Arkansas coaches and Diamondback players talked about afterward was what great teams they'd beaten and how it was too bad anybody had to lose. Having spent much of my life among athletes and literary/political intellectuals, if forced to choose one or the other, I'd pick the jocks every time. At the ballpark, see, everybody a.) competes openly; b.) agrees what the rules are and how to keep score; and c.) knows when the game is over and learns how to act.

The games couldn't have come at a better time. People all over the country got into this World Series bigtime. Friends who hadn't watched ten games all year exchanged heated e-mails debating Arizona manager Bob Brenly's pitching decisions.
Some still won't admit Brenly knew more about Curt Schilling's endurance than they did.

Orwell was simply wrong. At its best, competitive sport isn't war minus the shooting; it's art minus the bull---t.

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