If you were to ask a thousand people the question, "When it comes to the success of an individual and the success of our nation, which is more important, literacy or sports?," you would find, as I have, that about 99 percent will say literacy.

This is just common sense, because most people will answer from an intellectual perspective and not from an emotional perspective, which is to say, what we think and not how we feel. What I am going to say during the course of this column is certainly not meant to be an attack on sports or anyone connected with sports, but rather some insights that may help us improve literacy in our country. I just read an article in Newsweek titled, "Illiterate America ... 44 million American men and women are functionally illiterate." So, we do need positive help and encouragement from everyone.

We lag behind many countries in the world in this important educational benchmark, and I believe you will agree that we must work together to improve reading and literacy if we are to remain competitive in the highly technological world in which we live. The human mind is a powerful thing. It can provide us, in just a few seconds of inspiration, more insights into the solution of a problem than we can come up with in several hours of concentrated study.

Such was the case for me early one morning while I was lying in bed when I couldn't sleep and had a basketball game on cable television. This was during the time of the annual "March Madness," when college teams are playing championship games to determine who is going to be in the NCAA Tournament. As with many games, this one ended with a last-second shot at the buzzer and the winner had punched their ticket to the "Big Dance" that we hear so much about.

It's what happened the second the game was over that gave me the insights I mentioned earlier. The fans for the winning team stormed the court and bedlam broke out that lasted for several minutes, until emotions subsided and they could clear the court. As I lay there in bed, thinking about the scene that had just unfolded before me, almost like a bolt of lightning it hit me. We have a tremendous literacy problem in our nation. Could it be that the proliferation of sports is one of the reasons? The late Earl Nightingale said "We become what we think about" and the next game and winning is what millions of Americans are thinking about. There is also the factor or short-term profit versus long-term gain and literacy is long-term.

What winning does is what I call, "Short-Term Euphoria." According to the dictionary this means, "A feeling of well being; especially, in psychology, an abnormal feeling of buoyant vigor and health." There is no doubt about it - when we win we get excited. The bigger the stakes or the odds, the more excited we get. It makes us feel good to win, whether we are a participant or a fan. This desire to win and feel good starts for many children almost from the time they can walk; witness T-ball, Buddy League, Pee Wee League, Little League and then it really gets serious when a child gets to school and the sports activity gets more intense.

Now contrast this with reading and literacy, vital skills that last us a lifetime and help us achieve success. For every game, match, or contest in sports, there is a payoff, and you know instantly who won and who lost. There is not the same feeling of excitement when we learn to read. This takes slow, often pain-staking time, and then the external rewards are few. We can have both sports and literacy, but literacy is more important and must come first. What has happened in America is that we now have the tail wagging the dog.

(Jim Davidson is a public speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, AR 72034. To begin a bookcase literacy project visit www.bookcaseforeverychild.com. You won't go wrong helping a needy child.)