Game-less world is joke no longer


Every time the talk turned to sports, Mr. Graham covered his ears.

He was my sixth-grade English teacher, wry and impervious, a classic sports hater. He was convinced that our obsession with pro football was turning our minds to rubber. He couldn't stand to hear us debating last week's games in the idle minutes before class.

"I don't want to hear it," he would bark, closing his eyes and putting his hands over his ears. "I wish all these sports would just go away."

We thought he was funny. We never thought he would get his wish.

If you're out there somewhere, Mr. Graham, still holding out hope that all these sports will just go away, please be advised: They're working on it.

First, major-league baseball committed suicide. Now, NHL hockey is about to go poof. NBA basketball apparently may follow.

All we need is for the pro football players to walk off the job in dispute of the salary cap their union agreed to -- highly unlikely, but we're just talking here -- and we're looking at a complete washout of the four major professional sports.

The revenge of the Mr. Grahams!

We'd probably be OK for a while. We could sit around watching long documentaries with wistful poets and broadcasters weeping about old games. But that would get tiresome and one day we'd wake up needing a ballgame, and the only one on TV would be a tape of Feyenoord Rotterdam and FC Ajax playing a nil-nil draw in the mist in Amsterdam. Panic would set in and male bonding would decline 92 percent.

Even the members of the Loyal Order of Hockey Haters (you can join if you watch it only when the only other thing on is "Nova") would go begging for a dose of puck.

"We'd even take the Mighty Ducks!" they would sniff.

Hockey's problems are the ones in the headlines now because the NHL season was scheduled to begin yesterday. That it won't for another two weeks, if at all, is simply the stupidest development in sports this year. Which is saying something.

The conspiracy theory making the rounds is that the baseball players and owners are somehow orchestrating the NHL brouhaha because they're eager to have someone look dumber than them. If only it were that easily explained.

No, the truth is that, amazingly, the hockey owners and players have agreed to disagree at precisely the moment when their sport finally is succeeding in generating interest outside of Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat. So to speak.

Hockey is hot. The Rangers' drive to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years stole the last playoff season from the NBA. Fox paid far more money than was required for a network TV contract, hockey's biggest-ever in this country. Kids all over are wearing Sharks and Mighty Ducks caps, and playing in youth leagues.

Now, with baseball dead and the NHL in position to be the only league playing games Tuesday to Saturday through October, the owners and players are huffing at each other. The owners say the players make too much money. The small-market owners say they're on the brink of extinction. But they won't open their books. Blah, blah, blah.

The players offered not to strike all season if the owners wouldn't lock them out. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman turned down the offer.

The tenor of the debate is getting very hockey-ish. The Blackhawks' Chris Chelios said a player or fan "might take it into his own hands and figure that if they get him [Bettman] out of the way, this might get settled." May your teeth become Chiclets, in other words.

(Say what you want about Donald Fehr and Richard Ravitch, they never talked about rubbing each other out. What would Mr. Graham say?)

It's a mess. The only certainty is that the two sides are fools for finding a way to disappear just when they're winning hordes of new fans in California, Florida, Texas and everywhere else.

It's almost as if they're afraid to see their league expand beyond its semi-cult status into mass appeal.

Their myopia is remarkable. They can't see the big picture beyond their broken noses. If they're really this clueless, they deserve their anonymity.

If they succeeded in pushing their sport down a black hole in two weeks, then it'll be basketball's turn. The NBA is having a salary cap dispute, too. I'll spare you the details.

Buck Williams, the head of the players union, has said that the players probably will strike if the owners don't lock them out.

If the NBA disappears down the hole, that'll leave only that most Roman of sports, NFL football. You watch, there'd be lion-killing contests at halftime by December.

What is ironic is that this gradual meltdown of sports has its roots in the NFL. When the NFL players union agreed to a salary cap, the owners in the other sports saw that they might be able to beat their players unions, too, if they played tough enough.

Today, the NFL is more popular than ever and the other sports are popping like cheap balloons. And somewhere, Mr. Graham is taking his hands off his ears, and smiling.

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