SCOTT SIMON, host:
Why did he do it? In a week in which so much news has been grave, the water cooler question these days - maybe it's the latte line question - has been why did Zinedine Zidane, the most fabled athlete of France, who was in a position to deliver his team to an overtime victory in the World Cup final against Italy, lower his shaved head into the chest of Italian defender Marco Materazzi and get thrown out, lose the game, and end his glorious career in embarrassment?
Mr. Zidane has apologized to all the children for being a poor example of sportsmanship. But he did not repent his actions, saying that Mr. Materazzi had insulted his mother and sister. He agreed that Marco Materazzi had not assailed him with racial slurs.
In absence of proof of any wild rumors winging around the Web about organized crime and fixed games, maybe we should take him at his word. Epithets are supposed to hurt. It's easy to forget that in these times when many well-spoken people sprinkle the F word as casually as cracked pepper, that words become profane because they wound.
Slurs about an athlete's mother or sister are the oldest kind of playground provocation. Learning to brush them off like mosquito bites is part of growing up. But profanities are also as much a part of the play of big time sports as sweats, drain bruises and beer endorsements.
What do you think, they were talking about Proust out there?
The best athletes in America - I think specifically of Jackie Robinson and Michael Jordan - brushed off slurs but also lacerated their opponents with intricate and imaginative curses.
Games could be decided by inches and seconds. If an athlete can throw off an opponent with mere words, they've done something clever and effective.
There has been an awful lot of public pop psychologizing of Mr. Zidane. My favorite has been Bernard-Henri Lévy's remark that Achilles heel has now been joined by Zidane's head.
I think that he was exhausted, not just in the final fleeting minutes of another long match, but after 18 years. Was frustrated for not scoring the goal that could finally put France across. As his legs and lungs ached, he might have felt his strength fleeting away, and with it the career that's brought so much fame and joy.
Like a three-year-old who's having a good time at the playground that's getting tired and doesn't want to say goodbye, he lashed out so he'd have to be carried away.
Anyone who doubts that a mature, accomplished athlete would behave like a three-year-old, they forget that part of the fun and glory of sports is that while the game is played, we let children take charge.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. MARY MARTIN (Singer): (Singing) I won't grow up, I don't want to wear a tie, and a serious expression, in the middle of July, and if it means I must prepare, to shoulder burdens with a worried air, I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up, not me! Not I! Not me! So there. Never gonna be a man! I won't! Like to see somebody try and make me, anyone who wants to try and make me turn me to a man, catch me if you can! I won't grow up, not a penny will I pinch, I will never grow a moustache...
SIMON: And this is NPR News.
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