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IT'S TIME FOR DIGNITY TO RETURN TO SPORTS

In recent days, American sports journalists have struggled to put their world in perspective. When tragedy strikes, our impulse is to remind everyone that sports are irrelevant, that they're really nothing but a bunch of silly games.

It was a tough call, but the commissioners of the major sports made the right decision. Suspending the games through the weekend was the appropriate gesture. It gave the nation more time to mourn, and it allowed players and their families to remain together a while longer.

But I'm glad the sports world will finally get back to a sense of normalcy today. While it's true that sports are diminished in importance during times of disaster, that does not make them insignificant.

Sports give us joy. They give us a diversion from the grind of daily life. The games elevate and surprise us; they give us a reason to gather; they provide a common ground for conversation; they take our hand and walk us from season to season.

There's nothing wrong with wanting the sports world to start again. It's not callous or disrespectful to look forward to Barry Bonds' pursuit of 71 homers, or John Sterling's signature call, "Thaaaaaaa Yankees win!" on your car radio.

It will be wonderful to see Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn go through their final days as major-leaguers. They're two of our greatest sporting treasures, men who played the game relentlessly well, and with only one team. They remind us that athletes can reflect the hard-working virtues America holds dear.

You're not shallow if you're ready to resume the discussion of Rob Johnson and the West Coast offense. Talking about the Bills helps sustain us through a long winter. For a fan, the only thing worse than a losing Bills season would be no season at all.

During the past week, there have been countless examples of American decency and courage throughout the nation. People have pulled together in their common grief. They've demonstrated a nation's infinite capacity for love, respect and civility.

Let's hope our athletes follow their lead when the games resume. Sports should reflect the best of our culture. Too often in recent times, our athletes have demonstrated our ugly side, our instinct for violence, self-absorption and crude behavior.

Let's hope the ballplayers maintain perspective by avoiding any beanball wars. Fellows, don't be so quick to anger; don't turn every inside pitch into an affront to your dignity and manhood.

The NFL players showed respect for the victims by urging that games not be played over the weekend. Now let them show respect for each other, and for their sport, by putting an end to the senseless taunting. Stop all the gyrations after making a tackle. Cool the celebrations. Act like you've done it before.

Fans have a duty, too. There will be many moving scenes in American stadiums over the next few days. Fans will wave flags and cry and sing "God Bless America." Let's hope that when the singing stops, it isn't replaced by the cursing and drunken fan behavior all too common nowadays.

A decent nation doesn't throw batteries at the opposing outfielders. It doesn't chant obscenities for children to hear. It doesn't abuse people for daring to wear the hat or colors of the opposing team.

You want sports to be put in perspective? The next time you're at a youth sporting event, keep your mouth shut. Don't embarrass your kid by yelling at him. Don't try to intimidate the officials. Show all the kids what it means to be a decent, civilized American.

Let's be honest here. Sports matter -- maybe too much in this country. But by playing, our children can learn how to be teammates, how to sacrifice, how to work for a common goal. They discover that competition can be healthy, affirming and good.

And when they get a little older, they'll understand that sports have the power to keep us young, and in the best moments, to make us feel that much more alive.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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