Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Christmas Day means time off work for many people, though not everyone: nurses, firefighters, pastors, all among those who are working, as well as athletes.

Here's commentator Frank Deford.

FRANK DEFORD: Holidays have long been made for sports. Why, football has all but replaced the turkey as the prime signature of Thanksgiving. But then as far back as 1879, only 10 years after the first college football match was played, the Princeton-Yale game was a fixture, drawing crowds of up to 50,000 in New York. For decades in baseball, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day meant stadiums filled for double-headers.

And it's not just in the United States. In Canada, popular match-ups in the Canadian Football League are scheduled on both their Thanksgiving Day and their Labor Day. In England, Boxing Day - tomorrow, December 26 - has long been the occasion for special soccer matches, for fox hunting, and for top horse races. It's almost as if games are now an excuse for holidays, rather than the other way round.

And so to you and yours may I now wish you a yo-ho-ho Merry NBA Day. There'll be five nationally televised pro basketball games today, lasting 13 straight hours, from noon in the East till around 1 a.m. into, well, into Boxing Day.

Of course Christmas, being of religious heritage, is different from secular holidays, and there are Christians who believe that games have no place today. This year, the National Hockey League not only takes Christmas Day but Christmas Eve and tomorrow off as well. Still, most criticisms from the NBA players, including LeBron James, relate not to sacrilege but to missing time around the Christmas tree with their family.

And after all, sacred as Christmas may be for Christians, it's a joyous holiday. When else anymore do we even use the word merry? Nobody says Merry Valentines or Merry Birthday. Besides, most church services are held late Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. And hey, it's not just basketball. You don't like hoops, there's always big new movies opening that you can go see this afternoon. Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.

In fact, the most faithful Christians take more offense at baseball games played on Good Friday, which is surely the most somber day in Christianity - especially between noon and three, when most services are held - commemorating Jesus's time on the cross. Baseball ought to be sensitive enough never to start Good Friday games till late afternoon.

But of course nowadays we are both more secular and multicultural, deferring less and less to the Christian calendar. For example, it wasn't until 1902 that Major League Baseball games were regularly allowed to be played in a few cities on Sundays, and as late as 1934, Philadelphia forbade Sabbath baseball. And as for present-day Christmas basketball, the television ratings are so outstanding that it's fair to tell NBA players that you should keep on opening those stockings early because God will not rest ye merry gentlemen anytime soon on December the 25th.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Hopefully many of you are resting today as you listen to Frank Deford. He's on the program on Wednesdays.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Have a wonderful holiday.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford