When does it become time to call timeout?


January 18, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

You take your own memories from Wednesday night. Where you were when you heard the news. How you felt. Who will ever forget listening to Bernard Shaw on CNN as he crawled along the floor of his hotel room to describe the scene as the bombs fell on Baghdad? Much of America sat transfixed, caught between an overwhelming sadness and a morbid fascination, wondering, when we finally went to sleep, what the world would be like when we awoke.

Others, because they were looking for a release or maybe just because they had tickets, went to see basketball games and hockey matches. They left their homes by the tens of thousands across America to watch games instead of the war. You might argue about their sense of drama, not to mention their sense of history, but there it was. Life went on, and so did games.

Except one.

In one instance, the people in charge felt that games were inappropriate to the moment. Felt it in their gut. When the fans came by the thousands to Smith Center in Chapel Hill for a contest between North Carolina and North Carolina State, they were told the game was postponed. Life didn't go on, at least not quite the way it had before.

Was postponing the game the right choice? If so, why didn't anyone else make the same decision?

At North Carolina, they weren't sure, even a day later, if their reaction was the proper one.

"I don't think the decision to play would have been right or wrong," said John Swofford, North Carolina's athletic director.

Dean Smith, the North Carolina coach, is an unusually thoughtful man, particularly within the insular world of his profession. Over the many years, he has consistently run the best program in college sports, one that actually integrates academics with athletics. He cares about his players, and they even care about him. What I'm trying to say is that if you could expect to find perspective from any coach in the country, it would be Smith. And he wasn't sure, either.

"It's a tough call," he said Wednesday night. "It's a lot of inconvenience, but think of the poor people over there. This is a serious, serious business. It does make athletics insignificant. Obviously, there are far more important things than basketball. Still, it was a tremendous letdown."

He didn't see, Smith went on to say, why sports should be treated differently from any other enterprise.

"I don't think anyone wants war," Smith said, "and I'm certainly one of those. But it was a tough call. Theaters, restaurants and universities stay open at times like these."

In 1981, President Reagan was shot just hours before the NCAA championship game between North Carolina and Indiana. They decided to play the game anyway.

"We talked about calling off the national championship game," Smith recalled, "but while we were talking, LSU and Virginia were playing [in the consolation game]."

When do you shut down a game? Obviously, you don't call off sports for the duration. But there are moments that are different, and that seemed to be one. But people went to the game. Maybe that's the truly surprising factor. No matter what, people still go to the games, and perhaps that's reason enough to play them, although I can't imagine how any sporting event could have been more compelling than the war as it played out in our living rooms.

The presidents of the two universities made the decision to postpone. In their view, the moment was too important for games. North Carolina's Paul Hardin used the word "inappropriate." Larry Monteith of North Carolina State said: "Athletic events are entertainment, things you enjoy. The other events are life, war and things that take on a very different perspective."

It was just the one night, one night to stop and reflect and wonder about the horror of war. At every other sporting event, though, the one night was one too many.

Who was wrong, and who was right? Or was anybody wrong or right?

I wrote the other day that we would know in our gut whether the time was right to play a Super Bowl. What I should have understood, though, is that there are remarkably different reactions to the same stimulus. Many of us could never have left our TV sets and the war on that first, fateful night. But some apparently couldn't stay.

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