I realize that reading the Washington Post for its sports section is a bit like buying Playboy for the travel tips. Despite an evident qualitative decline over the past couple of decades, the Post remains the paper of record for devotees of American politics, and, whatever its faults, it is still the only daily in the District not founded by the leader of a religious cult. But there are far better sources for athletic insight both in print and online, and nobody beyond the beltway could possibly be interested in the fate of the capital's four pathetic pro franchises.
Regardless, inertia drew me to the Post's sports page yesterday and particularly to a piece by one John Feinstein, one of the paper's more celebrated columnists. Feinstein, it seems, is all bent out of shape because a college football coach hundreds of miles from the Potomac compared two difficult losses to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The coach, Nick Saban of the University of Alabama, evidently attempted to reassure the Dixie pigskin faithful that "catastrophes" can be turning points that lead to a redoubling of effort and eventual triumph, so long as FDR and not George W. Bush is president (that last part is mine, not Saban's).
Feinstein's overheated response:
"Okay, let's just say this: NO ONE should be allowed to mention catastrophes in which thousands of people died when talking about football -- or any sport. Not ever. And certainly not someone who is working at what is supposed to be an institution of higher learning. What kind of message is he sending to his players? If he makes a comment like this in public, what in the world is he saying to his players behind closed doors?" (Emphasis in original.)
OK, let's leave aside the thuggish notion that "NO ONE should be allowed" to mention human tragedies when referring to football games. Not ever. Or the idea that a "supposed" institution of higher ed (take that, Alabama!) shouldn't employ people who use metaphors that John Feinstein doesn't like. Instead, my favorite part of this sputtering diatribe is the sinister suggestion that Saban may be saying even more dreadful things to his players when the locker room doors are shut. ("Men, just remember, we are the Manson family, and our opponents are the citizens of Los Angeles!")
But no, I guess that's not really my favorite part after all, because I found something even better. About a decade ago, Feinstein wrote a book about the football rivalry between Army and Navy. And you know what he called it? Wait for it…he called it:
A CIVIL WAR
Now please correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm reasonably certain that civil wars—and certainly the U.S. version—represent "catastrophes in which thousands of people died". I realize that nobody is alive from 1865 to take offense at the comparison, but Feinstein's fatwa against insensitive analogies doesn't mention a statute of limitations. Not ever.
I have no interest in carrying water for Nick Saban or any other football coach. Saban makes a lot of money and can take care of himself. The folks down in Alabama are not likely to fire him because some sports columnist up north considers hyperbole a capital crime (of course Feinstein doesn't want Saban executed, so I suppose that's hyperbole, too; so shoot me).
The problem, of course, isn't just with John Feinstein and it didn't start last week. A couple of years ago, Kellen Winslow, Jr., then a student athlete at the University of Miami, had the temerity to refer to himself as a "soldier" trying to "kill" the opposition. Because he had the poor timing to make this comment during the early months of the Iraq War, the usual army of the self-righteous (is it all right for me to use the word "army"?) pilloried him for demeaning the troops. Since Winslow was, in fact, the first human being ever to employ martial metaphors when referring to football games (note to Feinstein: that's sarcasm), he was naturally forced to apologize.
So I guess my main point is: Can we please cut this out? Save the outrage for something real and important like, well, you know, actual war. Athletes and coaches and writers have been comparing athletics to combat for as long as anyone can remember. To do so does not insult the troops in any manner. Nick Saban did not say that his team's losses were more tragic than the collapse of the Twin Towers. Kellen Winslow never suggested that his bravery exceeded that of the Marines patrolling Baghdad.
If John Feinstein wants to be outraged, he should pick up his own damn newspaper, skip the sports section, and just spend a few minutes reading the stories on the front page.