Final exam: World Cup questions

The founding premise of this column is a question.

What are sports for?

Open with an establishing shot of that stadium in Frankfurt, Germany. The Women's World Cup broadcast Sunday. In the last of the sunlight, the wide line of the arena is white against the green of the trees. Hours later, the stadium is a bright island of fireworks on a broad and lightless plain.

What begins in daylight ends in darkness. In between is the game, and in the game is the compression of everything we are. This is our mythology. This is how we make meaning. Account for ourselves. By letting the game ask questions of us.

What's at stake? What does it mean to win? What does it mean to lose? What does it mean to be American? Or to be Japanese? How good are they? How good are we? Is there such a thing as Fate? Is there such a thing as Destiny? As Luck? Is there such a thing as God, and is God on our side? Or theirs? Either way, how can that be?

Can winning heal? Does losing wound?

What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a man? Why does every women's championship become a referendum on equality? Or a sales pitch? Or an occasion for polemic? Why the offstage inventory of Second- or Third- or Fourth-Wave feminists? Of revisionists and neo-realists and the great circling roll call from Wolf to Roiphe
to Paglia to Flanagan back to Woolf? Why are women's games never only games? Why is everything a metaphor? Why is everything political? Why can't we leave them alone to play?

Why do women earn 20 percent less than men for the same work?

Then ask, is Chance a strategy? How often can America rely on the tactical cliffhanger? On the righteous bounce? How long can it count on that last Last Second? How far out can any of us make it on that tightrope? How much confidence is overconfidence? (And how much of modesty self-loathing? How many polite small smiles before humility becomes a kind of sandbagging?)

Where does luck go when it leaves you? Was the first half the good-luck half for Japan? Or the bad-luck half for the United States? What accounts for that weird sense of imminence in the still-scoreless 65th minute? That nearly unbearable feeling that something must at last happen? And once it happened, how then to figure the high-def premonition that it needed to happen again -- and did?

Why are the movie heroes of Japan so often adolescent girls?

All square into overtime and squared again, then fast, bloodless handshakes into PKs, and the tense old jingoes on Madison Avenue are already factoring which star to pair with which line of shoes or corn flakes or skin care: Morgan? Wambach? Solo?

But what happens to a Cardiac Kid who can't find the paddles? When the magician fumbles the dove? Who are all these suddenly happy strangers?

How bad must a loss be to interrupt the life cycle of American celebrity? Does real fame end at the last whistle? Or does a low-grade variant persist for life, like something incurable, a fever that neither purifies nor kills?

Did someone win? Or did someone else lose? Did someone choke? Are we really debating this? Is the word "choke" where we make our stand? Is the real equality in unspooling the same blunt and empty-headed narratives and criticisms we unfurl for the men? Is this the rhetorical hill we die on for parity?

And what's the lesson here? Patience? Persistence? Love? Eat your beets? What terrible river of cliché will all this set loose?

Because at the end of things, there's no answer. There's only that brushstroke of human order set against the trees and a long line of questions leading back to one small fire on a lightless plain.

Everything human begins in daylight and ends in darkness. Between them, more questions. And our unlikely, impossible joy.

What are sports for?


Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter feed @MacGregorESPN.