CHICAGO - The other day, I was walking past the TV just as someone lamented, in a weary voice, "It was a war out there." But this was not an American Marine in Baghdad. It was not a Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan. It was not a human rights worker in Darfur, Sudan. The program was ESPN's SportsCenter, and the voice belonged to a basketball player who had just survived the frightful carnage of an NBA playoff game.
Following 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, athletes and journalists suddenly saw the folly of comparing sports to slaughter, and most of them curbed their careless use of such terms. Major League Baseball and the National Football League suspended play in the aftermath, and when players returned to the field, they weren't thinking how much their competitions resembled the Normandy invasion. More likely, they were thinking how lucky they were to be alive and earning a nice income from playing games.
The lesson stuck for a while. In 2003, one college football player, Kellen Winslow Jr. of the University of Miami, found himself reviled when he said, "It's war. They're out to kill you, so I'm out there to kill them. ... I'm a [expletive] soldier." Mr. Winslow later was wise enough to apologize, saying: "I cannot begin to imagine the magnitude of war or its consequences."
But even with daily reports of American casualties in Iraq, complacency has set in. In recent months, athletes of all sorts have gone back to melodramatically overstating the discipline, bravery and heroism required in competition.
Last year, Florida Marlins pitcher Josh Beckett declared, "We're warriors. Everybody on this team is a warrior."
In response to criticism this season, Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees said the only opinions that matter to him are those of "guys who go to war with me."
After a foul-plagued December basketball game between the University of Arkansas, Little Rock and McNeese State University, one player confided, "It was a big war out there."
A girls' high school tennis match in Huntington Beach, Calif.? You guessed it: "A war out there," according to one coach.
Please. A-Rod's idea of a casualty is an outfielder with a sore hamstring. College basketball players think bombs involve shooting from beyond the arc. While playing tennis in Huntington Beach, you never have to worry that an incoming mortar round will throw off your serve at match point.
It's ridiculous enough for athletes and coaches to grossly magnify their exploits in the best of times. But to do so when bona fide American warriors are dying for their country every week makes you think some professional jocks live about two time zones west of reality. Yet their warped view of the world has managed to filter down into the amateur ranks.
Plenty of sports can be demanding, grueling, painful and even dangerous. But they're all forms of play, which war is not. If you lose a battle in war, you may come home crippled, if you come home at all. If you lose a baseball game, you retire to a comfortable locker room stocked with cold drinks, fluffy towels and hot showers.
War is hell. Sport, win or lose, is pleasure.
Last season, Texas A&M; University's football team included a walk-on player named Josh Amstutz, who has had bigger worries than beating Oklahoma. A Marine who saw combat in Iraq, Mr. Amstutz earned a Purple Heart when he was shot through the leg by a sniper. When he finished his tour and came back to make the team as a reserve safety, he had no trouble keeping his new life in perspective.
"One practice it was pretty hot, and everybody was complaining," he told Sports Illustrated. "But I thought to myself, 'Hey, this isn't bad. It beats being in 120 degrees in Iraq in a hazardous chemical protective suit. And at least nobody's shooting at me.'"
Josh Beckett, meet Josh Amstutz. Now, who's a warrior?
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.