No sports murder here? Let's not be too certain WORLD CUP 1994

July 04, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The circumstances of Andres Escobar's death make it easier for us in this country to distance ourselves from it emotionally, to feel superior. We are not a country in which drug money governs and soccer is a religion. Not one of those countries. Such an outrageous, uncivilized act could never happen here, right?

Right?

Well, it would be nice to say so and know so.

But we can't.

Escobar was murdered late Saturday night in Medellin, Colombia, because he had made a mistake in a World Cup game, a mistake that caused his country sporting embarrassment and reportedly cost Colombian drug traffickers millions of dollars in lost bets.

He was a 27-year-old with a baby face, a courtly manner and feet as deft as a dancer's.

Death can get no more appalling.

Soccer officials were quick to lament the overemphasis given their sport in some countries, but, of course, the murder had less to do with sports than with the tragedy of Colombia, where drug traffickers often determine the value of life.

Colombia has the world's highest murder rate. Journalists, policemen and judges are gunned down for crossing the traffickers who play God. Escobar didn't ask to have anything to do with them. The tentacles of their insidious society came to him and grabbed him. He was an innocent.

Precisely a week after he played 90 minutes in a World Cup game against Switzerland at Stanford Stadium, he was laid out in a dark-wood casket in a basketball arena yesterday, viewed by a reported 100,000 mourners who lined up and shuffled by in silence.

It would be the same as one of our biggest baseball stars blowing the World Series and getting shot by someone who was very angry about it and perhaps a little bit poorer.

Couldn't possibly happen? Don't kid yourself.

We can't feel superior to the murder of Andres Escobar. Not anymore.

Not when Mitch Williams blows a game in the World Series and receives death threats scary enough to cause him to stay up all night watching his front door.

Not when Bill Curry fails as the football coach at the University of Alabama and gets a brick thrown through his office window.

Not when vague-looking characters are always showing up at team hotels demanding autographs and taking things very personally.

It is not such a great leap from that to the demented goons who surrounded Escobar's car and shot him six times.

It just isn't.

Sports are a religion in this country, too. Millions of people take them as seriously as they do their own lives, their jobs, their children, their futures. They cheer for their teams just as seriously as Colombia cheered for its World Cup team.

They take sports too seriously.

Sports are a wonderful escape from the humdrum of everyday life. They have the rare power to make us feel larger than we are, to take us away and excite us, to make us feel that we belong to something.

But they can't give us a raise or fight illiteracy. They can't solve what really matters. They're just games played by ordinary people who view their day at the ballpark as a day on the job.

A few weeks ago at Camden Yards a fan approached a couple of reporters in the idle minutes before a game. He wanted to talk about the Orioles. He was furious about a couple of trades that hadn't beenmade, about the Orioles' lackluster performance. His face turned red. He cursed. His hands shook.

"Hey, friend, take it easy," someone said gently.

A decent guy with a bad temper. Who can say what it would lead him to do?

A friend once told me I shouldn't disparage such passion, that it is the reason I have a job. This is true. But I have seen people outside the clubhouse care more about winning than people inside the clubhouse. To shake with anger about a loss just isn't right. There are more important things about which to get angry.

Escobar's fatal mistake was kicking the ball into his own net in a game against the United States at the Rose Bowl 12 days ago. He was trying to clear a shot and hit it the wrong way. The goal gave the Americans a 1-0 lead. They went on to win, 2-1.

For Colombia, a dark horse pick to win the Cup, it was a humiliating loss; the U.S. hadn't won a Cup game in 44 years. Sadly, that something awful might happen was never out of the realm of possibility. The drug cartels influence several of the major soccer teams in Colombia. A soccer official was murdered there in 1989. The head coach of the World Cup team, and one of his players, received death threats before the U.S. game. Obviously, life is treated with far less respect there than here.

But the lesson of Escobar's death transcends borders. Wherever sports are given too much importance, there is the possibility of such horrifying, unthinkable acts occurring. To think that we're excluded from that is folly.

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