By Frank Deford

Ah, our magnificent Independence Day approaches. The Fourth of July!

Flags flying -- the old red-white-and-blue. Patriotic parades . . . family picnics, fireworks . . .and . . . oh, no! Ugh! The Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Contest.

Can you believe it? The most celebrated event on the glorious Fourth is now a stuff-your-face digusting eating derby. I'm so sorry we all must digest this upsetting news.

How did this gross display of gluttony become an All-American favorite on the day we celebrate our sacred freedom? How did jamming hot dogs in your pie-hole become accepted as a sport? Did you know: the eaters competing for the Yellow Mustard International Belt are actually called "gastro-athletes?" ESPN, which knows no shame, is shamelessly showing this fine example of American exceptionalism to a world hungry for a taste of our American way.

Thus do we even make pornography of sport.

But oh, how different it used to be ---- remember? . . . when our Founding Fathers would all forgather each Fourth of July and go watch holiday doubleheaders. Adams and Hancock out at Fenway. Ben Franklin cheering the Phillies on. Charles Carroll of Carrollton enjoying a beer and crab cakes at Oriole Park. But the greedy National Pastime doesn't schedule twin bills anymore, therefore ceding the day to piggishness. I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy is now He's a Coney Island Stuffer.

And, my fellow Americans, it gets worse. Because Takeru Kobayashi, the erstwhile champ, has been banned by MLE ---- that's Major League Eating ---- he will be speed-ingesting frankfurters at a rooftop restaurant in Manhattan next to a large TV screen showing the certified Coney Island contestants. This is glutton creep of the worst kind.

And this hot-dog cramming only serves to give the noble wiener a bad name. In fact, when I see nitwits gorging themselves on hot dogs, it turns my stomach away from that splendid all-American foodstuff. Is that right? It's not the hot dog's fault that it's being abused by extremists.

And it's a cliche, but true. Buttered popcorn doesn't improve its flavor in a movie theatre. No matter where you drink champagne from a lady's slipper on New Year's Eve it's the same sparkle. But when you eat a hot dog at a ball park it is somehow gloriously transmuted into a better tasting morsel.

But just one, please. . . Well, maybe two.