Sports and war are different but TV words often the same


January 24, 1991|By Michael Hill

SUPER BOWL Sunday is clearly one of America's greatest holidays. Unlike those that precede it on the calendar, it comes with no heritage of deeper meaning -- the gratitude of the fall harvest of Thanksgiving, the spiritual significance of Christmas, the calendrical importance of New Year's.

No, Super Bowl Sunday is a purebred creation of modern America, a celebration of all we hold dear, consumerism and celebrity and sports and hype. And you don't even have to pretend to pay attention to the turkey dinner or kids' stockings above the fireplace or bursting fireworks.

On Super Bowl Sunday you get to head straight to the place where you want to be because this holiday is designed to gather you around the electronic hearth that always beckons through the other holidays' clutter -- the television set.

It's the TV that turns us, if not into a global village, at least into a national village on Super Bowl Sunday as we celebrate a basic tribal ritual, the clash of two who would be king and the crowning of the new champion.

There's only one problem with that this Sunday. We are involved in an even more basic tribal action -- warfare -- that makes the pretensions to importance projected on the Super Bowl seem silly by comparison.

The uneasy juxtaposition of these two contests -- one thought to be so important, the other actually important -- was evident last Sunday when reports of attacks by Iraqi missiles on Saudi Arabia interrupted the broadcast of the conference championship games.

The transitions were at least awkward, perhaps inappropriate, as the news anchors tried to bow to the importance of the football -- "Now, back to the game" -- and the sports anchors tried to segue smoothly into their job -- "That was certainly tense, and we've got some tension here."

On Sunday, the game will be in the hands of ABC. And with Al Michaels at the helm, the switch from whatever reports might come in from Peter Jennings should be smoother.

Michaels, of course, proved his aplomb during ABC's earthquake-interrupted coverage of the 1989 World Series game from San Francisco. He should be able to keep things in perspective, though don't be surprised if Dan Dierdorf or Frank Gifford pipes up inappropriately.

One big problem that might be insurmountable is that football coverage is so laden with the terminology of war, language that suddenly seems out of place on a field of games. The problem has reportedly caused several advertisers to change their spots for the game.

The most obvious example is the "blitz," which comes from the German word "Blitzkrieg," coined to describe the swift, unstoppable advance of Hitler's troops into Poland in 1939. Now, of course, it refers to a defensive tactic of sending in extra players, other than the down linemen, to rush the quarterback. There was a time that was known as a "red dog," but the term "blitz" won out in that contest.

That's probably because the war terms are just so seductive to the fans of football. There's always a lot of talk of strategy and tactics, of sticking to the game plan in the same way the Pentagon brass now talk of staying with the plan of aerial bombardment of Iraq.

A long pass isn't a long pass, it's a bomb. The team that does better passing the ball will be said to have superiority in the air, while the team that rushes will have it on the ground, as if the Air Force and infantry are involved.

A downed quarterback has been sacked, just like an ancient city at the mercy of invading forces. The grunting and groaning, pushing and shoving of linemen is a contest to see who will win the war in the trenches.

Gone are generic terms such as "T-formation" or even "wishbone," now there's the "run-and-shoot" offense. What used be a "spread formation" is now a "shotgun." If the game is particularly ferocious, someone might say that they're taking no prisoners out on the field today.

Though many of these terms are so ingrained in the game that it will be impossible to get them out of the coverage, ABC's producers would do well to ask their announcers to pay attention to their language and try to avoid as much as possible such war lingo during Sunday's broadcast.

It just won't sound right as, indeed, any Pole who suffered through the German invasion must always find the use of "blitz" to be of bad taste.

These terms are used because, like many tribal rites with ancient roots, football is a violent game. Its popularity is proof that even when little boys grow up, they still like to play war. What is painfully evident as we go into this Super Bowl Sunday is that the world would be better off if we could just play these games in a stadium instead of settling differences on the battlefield.

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