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Mad World

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As the smoke clears, we stop for a moment to note how little sports matter.

A woman sits slumped on an airport chair. Her hands grip the armrest and the seat edge so intensely that she looks to be in the throes of some great, unseen velocity. One shoe dangles limply from her left foot. The right shoe is nowhere to be found. Two dark eyes stare blankly from beneath a dirt-stained brow riven by trickles of blood. Her cheery yellow shirt is spread open, leaving her elegant black bra and tanned stomach exposed. Whether her blouse was torn by the blast itself or by paramedics hurriedly searching for wounds, we cannot say.

Mayhem. Death. Terror. A bloody gash on the heart of a nation.

At times like these, good cheer seems in short supply. We should be hard-pressed to take joy in the spectacle of sports when the world has gone temporarily mad yet again. In the wake of another tragedy, we find the familiar reactions to the news of innocent bloodshed. Social media is once again flooded with outrage and emotions and memes--all set to the steady drumbeat of personal and public rhetoric. These events are real life's equivalent of Van Damme movies: we've seen them too many times, and once was too much.

In the aftermath of another episode of evil, we want to stand with our faraway friend. We raise our voices for Paris and Brussels because there is some twinge of guilt in the safety that distance brings--and because, quite frankly, they look like us. For all our diversity, America is a still a nation preoccupied with the European roots of our identity, and so our interests and emotions still lean toward the original West. Terror happens everywhere, of course. Just this week Istanbul and the Ivory Coast were shattered by brutal violence. Sadly, it seems there is more tragedy than we can embrace in one week's time, and so the most sensational acts capture the biggest share of our grief.

The past 18 months have been hellish for our European friends, and so we stand with them. We pray for them. We declare ourselves united. Such sentiments help us feel not so alone when the fabric of sanity frays at the edges. As the streets of beautiful cities run red again, all most of us can do is spectate from afar. We are powerless to help those people who -- aside from their far superior taste in food, wine, beer, cars, and fashion -- are just like you and me. That is the true horror of such moments. We aren't immune, just luckier this time. They might be us, but for an ocean's distance.

They are not us, though. We are not them. The distinction is massive, for our lives go on as usual. We are not cloaked in fear, watching our police tear through neighborhoods in a frantic search for more perpetrators and more bombs. We can turn away from the whole grisly affair simply by changing the channel. When we've had our fill of the horror, we have the option of distractions. For many of us, that meant March Madness.

That most of our eyes turned quickly back to basketball is no surprise. We are a nation of great fans, careening from one sporting season to the next with boundless enthusiasm. Sports are in our red, American blood. We live and die by the scoreboard. Entire weeks of our all-too-short lives are ruined because young men were bested by other young men in a wildly esoteric, thoroughly American game of skill on behalf of our universities. Ours is a uniquely American insanity. Sports have an outsized effect on us, and even in the midst of tragedy they're never far from our minds.

Some years back, two angry young men blew up the finish line at the Boston Marathon. In the months that followed, the Red Sox and other Boston teams latched onto the "Boston Strong" slogan. They were hardly the first to turn local tragedy into a campaign for victory in the name of karma and healing--the Yankees and Giants did the same thing in the wake of September 11th. I felt then, as I do now, that there is a crassness to such co-opting of death and fear. Turning the pain of a wounded city into "we need to win to heal these people" rings a bit too hollow...a bit too conveniently heroic for a sports industry that really doesn't matter in the grand scheme, and which rarely exhibits any other virtues of heroism.

I wonder if our European counterparts--who are no strangers to sports fanaticism--will link athletics to national healing. Is that a purely American notion? I can't say for sure. Perhaps soccer clubs and rugby pitches will be festooned with slogans of unity. Perhaps not. For our part, we barely missed a beat in the Big Dance that is March Madness. Most anyone you meet could tell you that Duke and Maryland lost this week. Far fewer know that the third bomb in Brussels didn't detonate on time, saving dozens more lives. If all politics are local, so are all tragedies. In America, we seem a bit too content to stick them behind the sports section.

Earlier this week I penned a piece about Jim Harbaugh. The subject wasn't terribly serious, but the furor it caused was. Hundreds of comments, tweets and retweets, and even some hate mail followed. The idea that some folks take a rival fan's mild critique of their coach's behavior so seriously as to drop their work to tell me so led me to consider where sports fits into the greater fabric of our existence. I'm not so sure we're doing it right, to be honest--myself included.

When I think back to how sad or mad or even overjoyed sports have made me, I feel a bit silly. Sports can't possibly be worth so much. Terrorists have become regular interlopers in our society. There is always something to fear, some source of worry, some new threat waiting to shatter the innocence and sense of community we doggedly rekindle after each tragedy. In light of all that, my week of moping after Michael Geiger drove a kick through the uprights and a stake through my Buckeye heart seems like the most foolish of reactions.

Perhaps sports do have a purpose at times like this, notwithstanding the crass opportunism of major league sloganeering. Caring about whose house Jim Harbaugh is sleeping in or whether Mark Dantonio is recruiting enough star power is, at the least, an outlet for our troubled minds. Watching Tyvis Powell crush Lane Kiffin's arrogant ego in the playoffs is a welcome distraction from the real worries in my life. Sports are probably much the same for all of us. They don't really matter, but it's the ability to invest our pent-up emotions in something so ultimately benign that makes our teams such blessed additions to our lives.

We live in dangerous times. Soon enough, an innocent woman will again be slumped in a chair, desperately trying to make sense of a mad world. When that happens, hopefully we all can pause long enough recognize that which matters and that which does not, and to lend our efforts fully to those things which secure a lasting peace for the next generation of fans--both here and abroad.

We can only hope to live in a world where our teams are our biggest worry.