AMERICA's most important political decision of the fall - the Senate's confirmation of David Souter's appointment to the Supreme Court - has come a month before the national elections. Souter is from one of the least of states. New Hampshire is no Texas, Florida, or California. Its influence derives from its early place in the presidential nomination process, not in a mass of voters.
Justice Souter's understatement should make him comfortable in the court's black robes. He is a bachelor. He buys a paper in the local store on Sunday mornings. He spends evenings reading in an unpainted house that looks as if it might lack electricity. His self-deprecating humor often leaves him with an elfin grin. He describes himself as a moderate conservative - which is about how he came across to senators during their hearings. How moderate will be the conservative? That is the question. Souter will answer that himself in the form that most counts, in decisions. He showed no arrogance, no notions that might have provoked a public hue and cry. The Senate was clearly more comfortable going with Souter than in taking a chance on another nominee. Confirmed, he now deserves the public's full support and deference.
Souter will find his own way to answers. It would seem presumptuous to outline how justices should come to their conclusions - although law school professors and think-tank scholars do not feel so bound.
What would Justice Souter and company make of a case opposite their black-robed sobriety: the interviewing of naked male athletes by women reporters? In the Boston and Cincinnati professional football franchises, women reporters want equal entree to sources, without harassment.
Now, professional sports are businesses. Leagues are monopolies. Players are organized in unions. Leagues can set mandatory drug-use rules for testing, treatment, and dismissal of offenders, under collective bargaining. They can decide whether reporters should be allowed in locker rooms and shower stalls. Whether players should be allowed privacy until they're dressed doesn't seem to matter. Sports is entertainment; media coverage boosts the take at the gate.
The underlying issue, however, is a serious matter. How does a society value women? In some ways, America values women highly. It invests heavily in their education. The US competitive advantage against the Japanese and German societies may turn on how fully it utilizes the full intellectual potential of its workforce.
The task does not know whether a male or a female is performing it.
But women are exploited. Their presence disturbs the almost unconscious norms that male groups set to keep competition in check. They are undercounted at the top. They are outside executive golf cliques.
A lot of us spend more time than we should following sports - certainly we read the sports pages more than we do Supreme Court cases. In many ways, sports should trouble us. Steroids and other drugs in the locker room are greater threats than the presence of women. College coaches make hundreds of thousands of dollars and campus athletes cannot accept a pair of free sneakers. Some coaches do manage to combine big-time programs with strong ethical and educational motivation for their athletes. But even in the Ivy League, where the myth of the student athlete survives longest, the issue of special treatment in recruiting and financial aid for special talent persists.
Sports holds up a mirror to society.
The oasis of green, the parquet floor, represents the ``level playing field.'' The space is cleared for competition, for which there must be rules. The number of players must be equal. The game suggests a time out from normal pursuits - though fanship can become addictive.
Not many years ago Boston Marathon officials tried to keep a woman from running. Today women run everywhere. They are making it as sports reporters too.
During the two decades and more he will likely serve, who knows what cases will come before Justice Souter? The big rule book, the Constitution, may help little in distingishing the privacy issues of abortion and sports journalism, the womb and the locker room. He often may have to rely on his sense of how society insists on evolving.