Sunday, March 28, 1999

A new kind of March madness

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Confused Americans want to know:

        “What is a Kosovo?”

        “Why can't I find NATO on a map?”

        And, “Are we bombing Yugoslavia because they made those homely little cars?”

        What we need is a 30-second TV commercial, like the clever ones the NCAA has been running during “March Madness.”

        Here's the script:

        Man in lab coat draws blood from a Serbian soldier, then injects blood into a white mouse.

        Cut to another mouse being taken from a drawer labeled “Kosovo.”

        Scientists in protective space suits put both mice in a cage — then step back in horror as loud squeals and mouse snarls indicate mice murdering each other.

        Cut to slide under microscope: “March Madness — It's Spreading to Kosovo.”

        B-52 bombs mice.

        The End.

It's simple. No speeches, no battle maps, no military briefings or eye-glazing encyclopedia lessons on Balkan history.

        To understand Kosovo vs. Serbia, think “Gonzaga vs. Duke with automatic weapons.” To understand ancient ethnic and religious feuds in the Balkans, think “Crosstown Shootout with Russian tanks and heat-seeking missiles.”

        And NATO (North Americans Take Over) plays the referee with an F-16 whistle. The U.S. military can be identified by striped shirts that make clear targets for everyone from rock-throwing Macedonians to Serb soldiers armed with surface-to-air missiles from Russia.

        The Balkans war is much more complex than that, of course. Even the scholars on our Forum Page today hardly scratch the surface of the political, ideological, historical and religious conflicts in the region.

        But Americans don't have time for complex. Complex is too . . . complicated. Americans want simple. Fast. No more than five words. No more than one syll-ab-le.

        Impeachment, obstruction of justice, perjury? Nah. Just sex.

        Theft of nuclear technology by Communist China? So what? Dow is up!

        Genocide in Eastern Europe, where Yugoslavia disintegrated following the collapse of the Soviet Union? Back to the game.

        That's the beauty of sports. You don't have to understand anything to get rabidly excited. All you need to know is: Them bad, Us good — referees always unfair.

        Nobody dies. It's over when the clock runs out. There's a clear winner and a sad loser. You don't have to read anything in the newspaper but the time and channel.

        No wonder we'd rather watch the Final Four than live updates on the air strikes. Kosovo doesn't have a shot-clock or a know-it-all “analyst” like Billy Packer to tell us what we are watching and how it will turn out because he remembers when the Serbs lost to a championship Turk team in 1389.

        Compared to basketball, war is a bore.

        We've gone so long without real casualties or a genuinely bloody war that we've begun to treat our sports like war and our wars like a sport. And it's not good for either one. It makes us far too casual about wards and much too serious about sports.

        We turn loose our warlike instincts on the surrogate “enemies” who wear the other team's uniform.

        Ask any coach or referee who volunteers for youth sports. You'll hear stories about coaches who scream like psycho-lunatics at little boys and girls, yank them by the arms and humiliate them in front of a crowd. You'll hear about alleged adults who leave in their starting lineup with minutes to go, ahead by 20 points — not happy with mere victory until the opposing kids have been embarrassed to tears.

        You'll hear about some kids who try to injure other players — and parents who encourage it. You'll hear about parents, coaches and kids who abuse referees — As Seen On TV.

        After a season of coaching youth basketball, I sometimes wonder if we need a real war to remind us that games are just games, and people who think they are war don't know the score.

        Americans are confused. Most can name the Final Four, but can't name four reasons to bomb Yugoslavia. We know the names of all the star basketball players — but we don't know any names of young combat fliers the same age who are fighting for their lives and our country.

        I hope we don't learn those names the hard way — and find out more than we ever wanted to know about Kosovo.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.