A colleague walked up to me yesterday and asked, jokingly I hope, why George Bush couldn't have set a Jan. 30 deadline for Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait.
"You know, after the Super Bowl," he said.
Super Bowl Sunday, as the TV guys call it, is Jan. 27, a day of national celebration when, for a few hours, nearly everyone in America puts aside his everyday concerns, gathers his family and friends 'round the big-screen TV to watch -- not eat -- a turkey.
It is an important day, the day we might win the office pool. It's the day of Bud Bowl III. And at the game-day site, on this occasion in Tampa, Fla., it is the final gasp of a weeklong, Roman-numeraled debauchery that would have given Nero, if not Donald Trump, pause. And, almost incidentally, they play a football game.
Nixon would have waited.
But by the time you read this, there may be war in the Persian Gulf, and, if war comes, many people are going to ask how you can have a Super Bowl and the attendant party when, at the same time, soldiers are dying in the desert.
What is the answer? Do we diminish the sacrifices made by fighting men and women by playing games, or by watching them, or by writing about them?
I don't think anyone suggests we call off all games, or all fun and games, for the duration. Whether or not Towson State plays a basketball game doesn't seem that important in the greater scheme of things. Should we cancel the NBA season? The NHL season? The MSL season?
If we cancel sporting events, how do we treat movies, plays, TV sitcoms?
Of course, if there's a particularly compelling incident, a defining moment of national mourning, that would demand a different response. But if this war is no more horrible than all wars, life will go on, and sports will, too. Maybe, we can get a better fix, though, on the concept of games being a matter of life and death. Football is not hell.
Maybe football announcers will be careful about life "in the trenches" and quarterbacks "throwing the bomb" and teams "locked in mortal combat." Nobody should be launching "aerial attacks" or "marching into enemy territory." And yet it was just last Saturday, only moments after Congress had authorized President Bush to pursue war, that CBS-TV analyst Merlin Olsen said, "A real war [is] going on between [linemen] Charles Mann and Steve Wallace."
Over the weekend, CBS and NBC broke away from consecutive Bush news conferences so that nobody would miss a kickoff.
Certainly, this is not an easy question, not when hundreds of thousands of troops are risking their lives. And nobody is saying that whether you support war or whether you favor sanctions that you should still rally behind the NFL. But it's probably useful to remember that the Super Bowl was born during the Vietnam War. Sen. Bill Bradley said the other day that his New York Knicks won an NBA championship only days after the invasion of Cambodia.
In the baseball Hall of Fame, there is a famous missive, known as the green-light letter, from FranklinRoosevelt saying that baseball should continue to be played through World War II.
It isn't really a matter of priorities, although it has been. The NFL blew the call in 1963 when President Kennedy was killed by playing games the following Sunday with a nation still in shock. What makes this war, should it come, different is the deadline, a precipice dropping into nightmare. Usually, war takes us by surprise. In this case, peace would be the unexpected outcome.
In the first few days of this war, should it come, will people want to attend games or will they be riveted to CNN? Postponing games might make sense. But, eventually, the schedule would resume -- we should know when it's time -- and the diversion, for some anyway, might even be worthwhile.
What, though, of the Super Bowl?
The Super Bowl is different. The Super Bowl is a party. It's a holiday. It's Mardi Gras with shoulder pads. If nothing else, the Super Bowl has become a symbol for wretched excess. It doesn't seem right, somehow, to have that party, to which an entire nation is basically invited, while 400,000 Americans are fighting in the Gulf.
The call won't be easy. But, again, we should know in our gut what's right. We should know how much devastation is too much, when a diversion becomes a travesty. And, of course, there is the threat of terrorism.
Whenever they play the game, it must be played differently. The NFL must cancel its party. The corporate sponsors ought to follow suit. And we don't need any show of phony halftime patriotism either. A moment of silence will do, something dignified. They can play a football game, and the hometown of the winner can appreciate the victory without parades and certainly without what has become in some cities the obligatory riotous night of celebration.
What it comes down to, in the end, is that to cancel the Super Bowl is to say that, on some important level, it really matters. When, of course, it doesn't.