And so it begins.
Nothing gets the knives out, it seems, like a well-timed comment from a sports figure about gun control, that most hare-triggered of perennial American political issues.
Those of us who follow these sorts of stories knew it was only a matter of time until someone spoke up and politicized Saturday's senseless murder-suicide involving Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins.
That someone was NBC's Bob Costas, who in his weekly commentary segment on Sunday Night Football opined that
In the aftermath of the nearly unfathomable events in Kansas City, that most mindless of sports clichés was heard yet again, "Something like this really puts it all in perspective." Well if so, that sort of perspective has a very short shelf life since we will inevitably hear about the perspective we have supposedly again regained the next time ugly reality intrudes upon our games. Please.
He's right, of course. There's nothing so vacuous and empty as a sports cliche, particularly the ones we use when we're faced with something horrible and tragic, something difficult to understand.
And that's also precisely why cliches are as common in the world of sports as inflated salaries and sub-concussive head trauma. Coded into the very DNA of the sports cliche is our collective refusal to deal with the stuff that really matters.
Sports are escapism. Boredom killing. Three and a half hours of something else on a Sunday afternoon before we go back to the lives that inevitably await us on the other side of the final tally. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but it does help explain the swift reaction to Costas' remarks. (One of the more prevalent narratives held that Costas was somehow out of line in bringing a political issue into an "entertainment" venue.)
Proving yet again how truly divided this country is, the headlines from a couple of the major news outlets are worth noticing: NPR demurely announces that "Costas Gun Control Commentary Gets Notice," while Fox Sports goes straight for the red meat with "Costas Advocates for Gun Control."
But perhaps the fact that we are so deeply divided on this issue means that the right move in this case isn't necessarily the standard one: promptly put Costas in his place for being an egghead and a loudmouth and then get right back to grunting about what a physical player RG3 is. Drown it in beer until it happens again. Rinse and repeat.
Maybe we need to abandon the stupid and ultimately gutless cliches about "putting it all in perspective" and actually use the horror of this weekend as a touchstone for a significant conversation about something bigger--and (gasp!) more important--than whether or not the Texans will clinch the AFC South.
Sports fans are a hypocritical breed. On the one hand, we love to wax philosophical about the myriad ways that sports and life intersect: we cheer for the guy who asks his girlfriend to marry him at a Cubs game, we speak in reverent tones about how Ole Miss football can teach us about the history of racism in America, we praise our coaches for building character "on and off the field."
But then someone like Costas comes along and makes us think about something we'd rather not think about just now, and the whole thing falls apart. Faster than you can say "Ted Nugent" all those self-righteous pieties about sports and life and beauty mutate into "don't bring your politics into my sports."
(One wonders if Costas would've received similar approbation had he advocated for "clean coal.")
In America, sports in general (and the NFL in particular) are just about the closest thing we have to a common experience anymore.
In a democracy--if that is indeed what we still are in 2012--you're only as strong as your hard-earned rights to debate, dissent, and disagree. If we can still find a suitable forum in which to make that happen, then so much the better.