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For this lifelong sports fan, doubts are starting to appear

Sports have been a huge part of my life for, well, a huge part of my life. I've been a scrub and a player; a parent to athletes and a coach (which aren't the same thing, all you wannabe line-blurrers out there); a lover of sports books, magazines, newspapers and movies; I've even been a sportswriter.

And all along, I've always been a big fan. I know the rules and the players. I have one of those sick minds that remembers numbers and an aging body that remembers (all too well) hits I've taken and delivered. I hold dear the sights and smells of ballparks I've been in, and can recall with equal clarity the jubilation and despair I felt when my favorite teams came through or let one slip away.

I sincerely believe that sports have enriched my life. I really did learn lessons about teamwork and perseverance when I was a kid. I appreciated the part sports played in integrating our country. And I hope to live long enough to see what sea changes will result in our society, economy and government after three or four generations of competitive, athletic women reach adulthood.

Nevertheless, for the first time in my life, I have a sliver of doubt. I'm beginning to wonder whether sports have slid so far from their base concepts of participation, competition and fair play that they're not really worth my investment of time and energy. I haven't reached some cosmic tipping point, but I certainly am casting a skeptical eye at what passes for, and what is being promoted as, sports these days.

Lately, I worry:

· When I see SUVs driving down the road with windows plastered with some kid's name, followed by "CDO 9-10 All-Stars." I'm sorry, but 9- and 10-year-olds shouldn't be all-stars. I don't know who gets hurt worse, the 9-year-old who gets named to the ridiculous squad, or his counterpart who didn't make it. It's pretty early in life to be determining kids' paths like that. A 9-year-old kid shouldn't be made to feel lousy just because he didn't make some fake-ass team.

· About the commingling of sports and entertainment. More and more, you hear people on the radio explaining away the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs as, "Well, it's just a form of entertainment. Why not let them get as big and fast as they can?"

Because that's not fair. That's not sport. That's a "beauty" pageant with fake breasts and calf implants. Might be fun for the knuckle-draggers, but some of us aspire to higher ideals.

· About what's happening to ESPN. Here's an idea that was perfect!--a cable channel devoted to sports. In the early days, they worked hard to become the worldwide leader in sports. But now, they've become so full of themselves that they're chasing real fans off.

For the past month, they've been wasting time on this ridiculous thing called "Who's Now?" in which various sports stars are matched against each other in a single-elimination tournament, with the results determined by a mixture of votes from a panel of talking heads (including, ahem, Jessica Biel?!) and votes from viewers. I swear, they'll say, "Welcome to this special 90-minute segment of SportsCenter with an extended 'Who's Now?' match-up pitting Danica Patrick against Tony Parker."

I have a better idea. Why not just have a 60-minute segment of SportsCenter in which you tell us the sports scores and highlights and leave all that other nonsense to E! Entertainment News?

Besides, every time they say "Who's Now?" I think of Rick Moranis in Spaceballs as Dark Helmet saying, "Is that them now or is that them then?"

· About people who defend Barry Bonds--who mysteriously doubled in body mass, head size and home-run output in his late 30s--by offering up the lame, "He never tested positive." All that means is that he cheats better than others.

If I were a major league pitcher, I'd hit him every time he came to the plate. I'd throw at that elbow armor that MLB ridiculously allows him to wear. He ain't cheatin' off o' me.

And if I were the fan who caught home run ball No. 756, I'd hold a special auction, offering the ball to the person who makes the highest bid for the honor of destroying the Ball of Infamy. And I'd use the proceeds to teach kids how cheating diminishes us as a society. Or I'd buy them ice cream or something.

· About having to root for somebody in the Michael Vick-PETA faceoff. If Michael Vick did what he's accused of, he needs to go to prison. I've never had a dog, but I don't think they should be mistreated, let alone killed for not winning a blood match with another dog.

However, those People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals people make me sick. I have no doubt that some of them hold me in equal contempt for eating a tuna sandwich as they do Vick for electrocuting a dog. Zealots are scary, and those PETA people are the worst.

Maybe things will get better. I don't want to stop being a sports fan. And I'm too old to take up opera.

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