I recently had occasion to visit the management of the Pittsburgh Steelers and several other NFL teams to discuss a new business venture. And although I live and work in Los Angeles -- a city with more than its share of high profile, superstars -- I was overwhelmed by the sheer zealotry of the fans in the cities I visited.

In Pittsburgh, for instance, the cabdriver who picked me up at the airport was wearing a Steelers sweatshirt (of course), which prompted me to make the tactical error of mentioning the reason for my visit. That did it. For the entirety of our 45-minute drive into town, he regaled me with an unbroken, rapid-fire monologue about the subtle intricacies of game strategy, the current lineup, stats, pending trades, injuries, and strengths and weaknesses of every player. This guy lived and breathed the Steelers. It was his life.

He lived and breathed the Steelers. It was his life.

Organized sports have always been an escape from the vagaries of life and a way to release daily tensions. Television came along and single-handedly elevated sporting events to the feverish level of national holidays. Let's face it, the halftime show at the Super Bowl and the opening ceremonies of the Olympics have all but replaced Memorial Day parades and patriotic July Fourth celebrations.

It is, therefore, no great revelation to say that America is consumed with passion for organized sports.

Consider this recent news item: A 31-year-old man barely survived a deadly bacterial infection of the heart valve, caused by the numerous body piercings that he acquired in order to emulate his idol, basketball star Dennis Rodman. (Chicago Sun-Times, August 31, 2001)

Okay, so maybe this fan went a little over the top. But it does say a lot about our ceaseless adulation of the games and their players.

BOMBS AND AERIAL ATTACKS

In light of the recent, world-changing events in New York and Washington, America is significantly different in many ways. And it's an opportune time to reflect on our attitude toward sports, too.

In short, can American sports ever return to the same level of manufactured violence and mayhem of pre-terrorist innocence?

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the nation was in shock, followed by an unprecedented outpouring of grief, sympathy and mourning. Professional sports was shut down. One minor league baseball executive called off the championship series and instead had the two teams share the title this year. He didn't think anyone would be in the mood just then for dousing one another with champagne.

More on fans' minds was movies like "Black Sunday," in which a sniper threatens to kill fans at a stadium by shooting a dart gun from the Goodyear Blimp on Super Bowl Sunday.

After the first shockwaves began to subside, people slowly started putting the pieces of their lives back together again. Routines were reestablished. Baseball resumed its season, inexorably followed a week later by football.

I tuned in to a Vikings game and found a certain emptiness to it all. A kind of a haunting, melancholy mood that kept begging the question: Is all this really necessary? Is any of this organized aggression and grandiose competition so important anymore? Aren't we all a little less self-absorbed, a little more aware of the big picture?

The sportscasters were decidedly less manic. Patriotism was abundant: Flags were everywhere and the stirring rendition of our National Anthem even brought a tear to my macho eye. Conspicuously absent were the violent, war-like metaphors of traditional professional football. There were no "bombs" thrown. No "aerial attack." No linebackers "blitzing."

And I wondered: Could the players hit as hard ever again?

GETTING THE MESSAGE

As the weeks pass by and the shock of the terror wears off, I worry that so much has changed.

But I worry even more that nothing has changed.

If we Americans have indeed received the ultimate wake-up call, then it seems to me we have to stay awake. We have to prioritize the choices in our lives that will, once and for all, bring about the changes and resolutions we hope to accomplish. It means we have to realize what is frivolous and what is essential. What constitutes occasional, innocuous entertainment, and what is a serious, perpetual distraction from our goals.

In other words, we need keep our eyes on the ball.

A new alert had just come in: Michael Jordan signed with the Washington Wizards.

Competition is decidedly a part of life, and sports have always been part of the fabric of our shared American experience. We all need our heroes. But we also need to recognize sports for the simple entertainment it provides, wisely budget our time accordingly, and welcome a certain amount of sobering dignity back into the games we love to watch.

Is that message already wearing off? I checked my e-mail. After the WTC attacks, I'd signed up to receive the CNN Breaking News Flash. A new alert had just come in: Michael Jordan signed with the Washington Wizards.

Discouraged, I flicked on the TV. It was a special news update of Barry Bonds trying to break the single-season home run record. A gallant feat, true. But still just one guy whacking a ball with a stick. Perhaps, I hoped, the baseball world would keep this event in perspective.

I watched the replay of Bond's homer number 69 rocketing out of the ballpark and into San Francisco Bay -- followed immediately by frenzied boaters, kayakers and surfboarders diving into the water and battling each other for the ball.

I'm not trying to throw a bucket of cold water on American sports. And I appreciate President Bush's directive to get back to living our normal lives as soon as possible.

But I wonder... when we will get the real message of it all.