Monday, March 24, 2003

Fans take refuge from war in sports

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tens of thousands of Cincinnatians are toasting a new ballpark. Millions are glued to TV to watch the first week of March Madness. And the horses thrilled the pre-Derby crowds at Turfway Park.

Even as bombs fall in Iraq, our sports-crazy region finds plenty of reasons for the games to go on.

It's not that we turn to sports despite a war as much as we turn to sports to spite a war.

"Everybody is praying for our soldiers and watching what is going on over in Iraq. People know how important that is," legendary jockey Steve Cauthen said during lunch at the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway last week. "But they also want to live a normal life and not let a tyrant change the way they live."

Cauthen, the last winner of racing's Triple Crown, now breeds horses on a Boone County farm. He said sports "is always a good diversion from our daily lives, but obviously more so now."

Track president Bob Elliston said that even though the war started late Wednesday, he gave no thought to canceling Turfway's biggest day of the year on Thursday.

More security was added, and a moment of silence was held. But the race went on.

"While we should keep our military folks in our thoughts and prayers," Elliston says, "people need some time away from the news coverage on TV."

Up in Turfway's grandstands, members of the Greater Cincinnati chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation were holding a Hoops, Horses and Hope fund-raiser. Attendees could watch the opening round of the NCAA basketball tournament while betting on simulcast horse races from across the land.

At the same time, the first full day of a massive war was under way.

Channel surfing

In an almost surreal sequence that says much about our times, Tom and Vira Schmidt of Wilder channel-surfed on their small TV between a horse race at Beulah Park near Columbus, the basketball game between the University of Cincinnati and Gonzaga and live MSNBC coverage of American troops moving across the Iraqi desert toward Baghdad.

"The most important thing on everybody's mind is what's going on in Iraq," stockbroker Tom Schmidt, 37, said. "But they just need a diversion."

Mike Giordano, 38, of Hebron was sitting in a track lounge, watching the Bearcats and sipping on a Bud while searching for respite from talk of war.

"I totally support the troops and what the President is doing," said Giordano. "But we are inundated with so much media coverage of it. You need a break."

Battles and ballgames have shared a kinship back to the days of ancient Greeks. Sporting events even were used to train for war and honor those killed in battle, University of Illinois English professor Debra Hawhee said .

But Hawhee, a member of the 1989 and 1991 University of Tennessee Lady Vols national champion basketball teams, is troubled by how easily war and sports have come together in modern times.

Similar language

"Look at how athletics is saturated with war language," said Hawhee, author of books and articles on the Greeks and athletics. Quarterbacks throw a "bomb" into the end zone. Basketball players "slash" to the hole. Teams learn to defend the "blitz."

"It's disturbing how when you watch TV, some military analysts sound like ESPN commentators," she said.

Hawhee said people become numb to news of war because they're so far from it. "It's so far away they just keep going on with their lives, and that includes following sports. Go to the store, watch the war, fill out an (NCAA tournament) bracket, watch the game."

Hawhee even found one example of sports co-mingling with war protestors on the campus at Illinois, where the Fighting Illini are playing in the NCAA tournament.

"I saw one protestor holding a sign that said, "No War, Go Illini,''' she said.

Friday afternoon at Willie's Sports Cafe in Covington fans clad mostly in blue packed the place to watch their beloved Kentucky Wildcats beat up on IUPUI in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Fort Thomas resident Jim Abner, 39, a steel contractor, was seated at a crowded table with a group that included his two brothers. He said gathering with friends to watch sports is something Americans love to do. Even during a war.

"The men and women over there fighting in this war are happy to know we are continuing on with our daily lives," said Abner, the father of four who plans to attend the Reds Opening Day at Great American Ball Park March 31.

For those who go to the Reds game, already special because it will be the first played in the new park, it will be a chance to display patriotism and a love of country, Abner said.

"We've seen the protestors on TV," he said, shaking his head in disgust. "Opening Day is always very patriotic, but it's going to be even more so this year. It's a chance for those who are pro-American to have their say on national TV."

Patriotic themes

Reds chief operating officer John Allen confirmed that patriotic ceremonies are being planned for Opening Day, but said he couldn't be more specific yet.

"Sports does not overshadow the drama or importance of anything going on" in Iraq, Allen said. But he said fans still find comfort in sports.


NCAA tournament coverage
Great American Ball Park coverage

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