Friday Night Fever

Everybody who is even remotely interested in sports knows that this is the weekend for the NCAA college basketball Final Four. This year, UCLA, North Carolina, Memphis, and Kansas compete in San Antonio, Texas. The two semi-final games are on Saturday and the championship game is Monday night. As I sit in my hotel room Friday night in San Antonio, I have one major question: why can't the games start tonight? I'm ready.

I didn't go to any of the four schools in the Final Four. In fact, neither of my alma maters -- Cal or Northwestern - has been in any of the five Final Fours that I've attended. Realistically, their meeting in a championship game anytime soon is about as likely as the Obamas inviting the Clintons over for dinner. So what makes me want to travel on crowded flights to stay in noisy hotels all to watch some games I could see better on TV at home?

It's the same reason that perfectly sane adults -- doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, waitresses, and people from every other walk of life -- dress in ridiculous outfits and scream for a few hours, and then go back to their regular lives. We do it to escape. We do it to get away from the real world. We do it to take a break from thinking about work, personal problems, or the war.

Sports have been criticized for being too commercial, too ready to coddle egomaniacal athletes, and too full of drugs. Amateur sports are seen as a sham in which the college or Olympic participant is not really an amateur. I can't argue with any of these criticisms. Sports are all of these things. But they are something else, too -- they are really fun to watch. And as the war continues with no end in sight, and as the dollar will soon buy a quarter of a gallon of gasoline, it seems like a pretty good time for fun.

The excitement of attending this year's Final Four started on the flight to San Antonio. The plane was filled with partisan people making the pilgrimage. When we landed, we were inundated with signs and friendly faces, all welcoming us to "San Antonio, Home of the 2008 NCAA Final Four." We were serenaded at the baggage carousel by a mariachi band. You see, it's not just the Alamodome that will house excitement this weekend. All of San Antonio seems exhilarated.

The sound of people talking and laughing was incredibly loud on the streets of San Antonio Friday night. The entire downtown area was hosting a party. And this was before the games had even started. What would it be like after some fans really had something to celebrate?

Historically, sports have often provided a much-needed respite from cruel reality. I remember reading stories about the Civil War in which some soldiers from the North and South took a break from fighting to play baseball with each other. Similarly, the Philippine army and insurgents recently held a seven-hour truce so they could watch local hero Manny Pacquiao fight for the super featherweight title. Unfortunately, in these kinds of cases, after the sporting events were over, the participants went back to trying to kill each other. So as far as I'm concerned, our society doesn't suffer from too much sport, but not enough.

It never bothers me when a President welcomes athletes to the White House or calls to congratulate a team that has won a championship. It's fine with me if politicians are big sports fans. Others may ask, "Don't our leaders have better things to do?" My answer is, "Not necessarily." The more hours that those in power spend dealing with sports means there are fewer hours that they have to mess up some foreign or domestic policy.

If George Bush's psyche had pushed him to compete with his father as an athlete rather than as a statesman, how much different might the world be today?

Perhaps that's too serious of a question to ponder just now. This weekend is a time for taking a break, watching the games, and having fun. It's more appropriate to ponder whether all those UCLA fans who color their faces blue will be able to remove that paint before they return to work next week. After Monday night, we can go back to solving the problems of the world.