SPORTS promise paradise. But as practiced today at the college and professional levels they are trivialized by money-grubbing and hypocrisy. Sports have always had a dual nature. This subject is elegantly discussed by A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former president of Yale and the late commissioner of baseball, in the slim volume ``Take Time for Paradise,'' published last September: ``For the sport's participant, it is an experience of the constant dialectic of restraint and release, the repeated interplay of energy and order, of improvisation and obligation, of strategy and tactic, all neatness denied and ambiguity affirmed by the incredible power of the random ... , by vagaries of weather, by mental lapses or physical failure, by flaw in field or equipment, by laws of physics that operate on round or oblong objects in their own way, by error in all its lurking multiplicity ...
``The spectator invests his surrogate out there with all his carefree hopes, his aspirations for freedom, his yearning for transmutation of business into leisure, war into peace, effort into grace. To take the acts of physical toil - lifting, throwing, bending, jumping, pushing, grasping, stretching, running, hoisting, the constantly repeated acts that for millennia have meant work - and to bound them in time or by rules or boundaries in a green enclosure surrounded by an amphitheater or at least a gallery (thus combining garden and city, a place removed from care but in this real world) is to replicate the arena of humankind's highest aspirations.''
Sport is a metaphor for life's journey. The ball park is community. To hit a home run is to circle the bases without the ordeal of challenge at first or second or third base - vulnerable stops in our individual odysseys. Home base is family, hearth and friends, to which we return once our circuit is over. Aristotelian ``leisure'' is achieved - freedom to study and practice the liberal, self-improving arts - at the end of a successful sports career.
Against this ideal we must set the events of our time. The baseball lockout by the professional club owners is an attempt to stop cold turkey their own wage inflation - a binge that has raised contracts to obscene levels.
In college football, Notre Dame has spun away from the rest of the big-time schools to make its own television deal with NBC. Television and gate-receipt money is pouring into campus coffers via basketball programs too. The college leagues at the same time struggle at the brink of ``scandal'' over recruiting and payoff violations. How is it consistent for a university to exploit a basketball program - perhaps a dozen players bringing in several million dollars to a school - and then protest a player's discount at a nearby clothier?
Injury levels climb in professional football as the speed and mass of players is exaggerated by steroids. At the same time, football and the other sports have adopted drug-use penalties that seem more intent on preserving the public image of the franchise than on protecting the personal welfare of the player.
We won't even discuss sports gambling, which is trying to absorb the college games, or the latest dispute in pro boxing - a sport that should be banned.
Elizabeth Comte and Chuck Stogel report in the Sporting News that the sports economy in America hit the $63 billion mark in 1988. As a portion of the gross national product, sports - from the Air Jordans you lace on to the World Series you tune in - is the 22nd largest industry in the US. It ranks ahead of autos, lumber, and air transportation, and just behind printing, legal services, and trucking. A lot of innocence can get lost in an enterprise that vast.
The privilege of watching superior athletes makes us want to filter out modern entertainment's distorting values - its confusion of reward and performance.
Too bad we must take sports this seriously. But as the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said in another context: ``Honesty, authenticity, integrity without love may lead to the ruin of others, of oneself, or both. On the other hand, love, fervor, or exaltation alone may seduce us into living in a fool's Paradise - a wise man's Hell.''