It’s not yet football season, but I’m already hearing rumblings, and I’ve seen news bits on the the Rams cheerleaders. But since, to my mind, all professional sports is of a fabric, some worse than others, I thought I’d post this essay I wrote some time ago, with modifications.
An acquaintance asked me a while ago if I intended to watch the play-offs and I responded–automatically and immediately–with “what play-offs?”
Such honesty can get you seriously dissed in this country. But, yes, Virginia, there are people in the United States who know virtually nothing about pro sports. Or semi-pro. Or amateur. Nothing about sports.
When the Cardinals (my home team) are in the play-offs or whatever, heading for a pennant–which they do more regularly than I care to recall–I suffer at work, because suddenly none of the radios are playing music, but carrying the do-or-die commentary on the day’s Game. People move about rivetted. They have a glazed look in their eyes. I’ve seen that look in others–religious fanatics in the grip of glossolalia.
I don’t get it.
No, wait. Let me be clearer. I don’t GET IT!
Is it possible to grow up in this culture and not have an appreciation for athletics? Sure, but that’s not what I don’t get. And for the most part, I’m not sure most sports fans have such an appreciation themselves. I mean, I don’t think all those people who tuned in to watch the Team of the Month take another Super Bowl championship appreciate athletics. They are something other than connoisseurs of physical ability. They are SportsFans.
My father was not a Sports Fan. We did not watch the Big Game, he did not encourage me to play Little League, there was almost never any discussion in my house about who was winning what title. The first time I recall sports as a topic was when Cassius Clay (in the process of becoming Mohammed Ali) went to jail for refusing the draft. As you may imagine, the conversation was not about boxing.
Consequently, other things dominated my childhood and adolescence. This led to a very strained relationship with my peers. I was not an athletic child, although I wasn’t sickly, either. I ran and played as full-out as anyone. I lacked Grace.
War games were my big thing. I was an early Civil War buff and I was fascinated by World War II. My heroes included adventure movie actors–Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas–and the ability to do meant as much if not more than the ability to think. It wasn’t an aversion to the physical that isolated me. It was an aversion to sports.
Well, what became an aversion. To be honest, I gave it a try. Half-heartedly, I suppose. In retrospect, I lacked the fervor, the fire in the belly, as it were. I was not a True Believer.
The result was, when it came to anything physical, I was the last one chosen for the teams. Being ostracized will put a damper on ones sense of “team spirit”–it didn’t matter that the few times I did end up on a team, I did okay. I didn’t do okay enough.
But the real problem over time was my complete lack of immersion in sports as national pasttime. It’s like religion. The old saying about the Catholics was that “if we have them till they are seven, they are ours for life” seems to apply to sports doubly so. As I said, in my house, sports was just a non-issue.
(As an aside–I said I was a WWII buff. For a time, there was a kind of story that fascinated television and movie makers–not a lot, but it came up–of the period during the Battle of the Bulge when Germans infiltrated American lines in American uniforms and speaking flawless english. The way to find out that they were spies was to find out if they knew who had won the last World Series. Obviously, a “real American” would know. I couldn’t help but think that if I’d been there then, they’d have shot me as a spy. But it is the unquestioned assumption that every America knows such things that I’m addressing–partly–in this tirade.)
My father, I have to say here, was not a physical wimp. Quite the contrary. And it was a real problem for me later, living up to that, along with all the other aspects of him that I measured myself against. But my dad, as a young man, was I believe the strongest, most agile man I have ever known. We’re roughly the same size now–five’six, one-hundred-sixty pounds–but pound for pound, he was incredible. If he had been any taller, you’d have called him wiry. Hands like vice grips. I say this to point out that I did not grow up in a house of intellectual milquetoasts where the heaviest thing ever picked up was a dictionary. He just had no interest in sports.
My grandfather, Bill Driskell, on the other hand, was a absolute devotee to baseball. It was his passion. As he grew older, it grew stronger. I remember one time coming into his room and finding him watching a game on tv, listening to another on one radio, and a third on a small transistor. Or it might have been two commentators on different stations for the same game, I don’t know. But this was devotion! He loved it and could give you stats going back to the 30s.
I didn’t hang around with him enough to become infected.
So basically, I grew up wondering what all the fuss was about.
I tried out for basketball in grade school. Despite the fact that I was agile and fairly adept at making baskets, I failed to make the cut. Years later I asked why and was told that when I approached the basket to shoot I tended to jump in such a way that it appeared that I was kicking myself in the ass. One of the coaches told me that. I don’t know if he was kidding or what, but basically it was rejection by virtue of lack of grace.
I discovered in boy scouts that I could hit pretty well in softball. I could also run like a jackrabbit (from years of running from bullies). What turned me off was bad fielding and the subsequent humiliation by members of my own team when they held me up to ridicule. I wasn’t invested enough in the game to put up with it, so I left.
My freshman year of high school, the track coach saw me nearly beat his star sprinter in the 50 yard dash and tried to enlist me onto the track team. I was not interested. For the rest of that year I was subjected to periodic attacks by him and other members of the track team beginning with long talks about school pride and team spirit and ending up with the coach suggesting that I must be homosexual to not want to participate in sports. This was also the year I began to see how athletes are venerated in schools. In my junior year I had the temerity to ask a cheerleader out on a date. Of course she said no, I don’t think I expected otherwise, but it didn’t end there. A few days later I was cornered by three football players and told in no uncertain terms that the cheerleaders were off-limits to anyone but the team members–that the cheerleaders “are ours, a**hole, so you stay away.”
By the time I was a senior in high school, I understood what was going on. I didn’t, however, realize just how deep it went in society at large. I mistakenly assumed that this obsession with sports was a phase of adolescence and that adults possessed more perspective.
Boy, was I wrong.
I think our admiration of sports figures is partly a confusion over the value of attributes.
Well, it goes back to Plato…
Maybe that’s too far. I believe it’s part of the problem we’ve had since the dawn of the Enlightenment, but most especially since Darwin pretty much brushed special creation off the stage. Empiricism versus Platonic Rationalism. Wherever you wish to point as the start of the discord, it basically amounts to this:
Some people want to believe that “character” is an innate quality, something we are all born with, and only modify it over time. “Goodness” then becomes an irreducible trait which one possesses by virtue of being born that way, like a “talent.”
Others of course think this is all b.s. and that all traits are learned–i.e. acquired–over time, and that we learn to be good–or bad–as the case may be.
The short of it is, Plato believed (as expressed in The Republic) that people were born to what they naturally are–there are people of brass, people of silver, people of gold, and none of them can change what they were born to because these qualities are innate. This is the thinking that goes to ethnicity as a thing unto itself, regardless of culture–the Greeks are Greeks, whether raised by Romans, Britons, Germans, or Persians, and so on with the other “races” and that the defining racial trait comes out regardless of upbringing. The idea of innate qualities, biologically determined, suffuses our jokes and our prejudices. Christianized Jews under Hitler were exterminated because of their inherent Jewishness, and the master race was something bred.
Do we think like this today?
Not overtly. We’ve embraced the nurture over nature model for the most part. But there’s still an atavistic strain of assessment that distrusts learning. It expresses itself in the valuation of physical prowess over intellectual prowess that permeates our culture.
And nowhere is it more perversely entrenched than in athletics.
Not athletics as the physical side of living but in athletics as our national religion.
Which is what it is, you know.
We cling to the separation clause of the First Amendment not because we understand the intellectual and social ramifications of it, but because we as a nation implicitly realize that we already have a national religion.
(Excuse me? I hear people say…certainly.)
Let me state here that I think athletics and sports are not the same thing. Consider: athletics–physical fitness, the striving to achieve a bodily standard and ability–is about perfectibility. Never to be attained, of course, since in the first place we have no idea what that is, but also because we are always improving.
Sports, on the other hand, is not about perfectibility. It is about Winning. Solely.
Cities as a whole spend more on professional sports than they ever get back out of it, what with the tax credits, public support, public funding of arenas and stadiums. Simple bookkeeping shows this to be the case. My own city just came close to seeing a new baseball stadium built at the public expense AND THE ONE IT’S REPLACING HAS NEVER PAID BACK THE PUBLIC LOANS IT TOOK TO BUILD IT! We wrote it off.
Public referendums to defeat tax funded stadiums are routinely set aside, the voters ignored, and public money funneled in. Seattle is an excellent example. Repayment is almost always forgiven.
If this were done for an art museum, the scandal would end the careers of public officials. It would not stand.
People ignore it largely because it’s irrelevant. The profit derived from sports, the civic benefit supposedly enabled, are beside the point.
If you want to see what a nation worships, just look to see how big the cathedrals are and how many of them get built. In our case, sports facilities are churches. We don’t (collectively) care how much they cost. We go there to worship.
Worship the idea that physical prowess is a defining national characteristic and through such displays our national character is reified. Worship the idea that the only valid proof of prowess is beating the other guy–winning. And that through winning on the sports field, the whole country becomes by extension a country of winners.
America kicks ass.
Why this is more important than intelligence, learning, understanding, comprehending, and so forth, I don’t have a clue.
Unless it goes back to that innate quality thing.
See, I believe that all of us at some point in our lives, even if only for five minutes, want to believe that we are intrinsically better than someone else. That being better wasn’t–or shouldn’t be–a matter of earning it, just a matter of having been born better. It’s the basis of those infantile “My daddy’s better than your daddy” cut fights kids get into. Because I have no basis to claim my superiority over you, I will claim the superiority of my father over yours and that will be my victory over you as well.
Well, of course. But that’s never stopped people from doing or believing things before.
The attitude we have toward athletic ability is different from the attitude we have toward all other skills. We treat athletics as a inborn trait, a gift in the most literal sense, and something bound up with identity in a way that only music seems to approach. We see children with a “natural grace” that seemingly comes from nowhere (some with more grace than others, and many with no grace at all–as if they were born that way) and subconsciously begin to believe that all abilities “come naturally.” Later, when we realize this is a false conclusion, the mind makes an adjustment that simply covers fact over with what we really want to believe. That while perhaps training is necessary to bring the talent to the fore, the talent is somehow “god given”, a blessing. That “natural grace” model trumps learned skill in those thoughtless moments when we make character judgments or moral valuations. (People who are good at things that can only ever be learned just aren’t quite as …cool…as people who have “god given talents”…)
Even music we concede is a learned thing.
It wasn’t until I read a Timothy Ferris essay on the genius of Joe Montana that I realized how entrenched is the attitude that athletics is an innate ability. (“Joe Montana’s Prefrontal Cortex” collected in The Mind’s Sky) Ferris is one of our best popular science writers and this essay is a discussion of the “genius” involved in superb athletic performance, that the ability to throw, run, catch, and do what athletes do is as much a matter of the brain’s ability to process information rapidly and accurately as it is the body’s ability to keep up with the brain’s direction.
But it is a developed skill, a learned ability, as much as anything else. (Which implies that anyone could do it given enough training, etc, which is also not true–no more true than “anyone” can be an Einstein or a Horowitz.)
We recoil from the idea, though, that pro athletes have what amounts to A Job.
No, it can’t be. It’s a Calling. It’s Destiny.
They are the exemplars of our faith in what is valuable. Why else the spastic aversion to steroids and performance enhancers? The temple attendants must be “pure” to properly reify what is important.
My attitude toward athletics is at odds with my attitude toward sports. I work out. I used to practice martial arts. I think those who deny the body, who abuse it, ignore it, try to pretend it’s not important, are fools (although I understand people who do so out of a sense of never “measuring up” to someone else’s–say, society’s–standards). I love the use of my body and, as I said earlier, many of my childhood heroes were athletes.
My attitude toward sports is different. Sports is not athletics. As silly and counterintuitive as that sounds–and I concede you cannot have sports without athletics, at least not in any recognizable sense–I think it is true and I think it is a distinction that needs to be recognized.
Sports is business combined with socialization.
When those jocks in high school asserted their “property rights” over the cheerleaders, they were exercising something that we simply take for granted in this society–sport heroes get special treatment and that treatment is expressed in social currency. I crossed a social line I should–if I’d been properly socialized–have known was there.
When that coach was following me around impugning my manhood because I wouldn’t “join the team” his animus came from a rejection of the Outsider by the community. He presumed that he, as representative of the community, had a right to coopt my “natural ability” for the use of that community. The idea that he should simply encourge me to continue being athletic and maybe helping me out with it didn’t even occur to him, because to do that would be to accept that I had the right to be apart from what he thought was important. And what he thought was important was Winning. I wouldn’t play along. I wouldn’t accept his standard of what makes someone valuable within a community. I wouldn’t put myself at the beck and call of my school or community. I wasn’t “one of the boys” and therefore could not be trusted. I was suspect. Worse than the nerds everyone poked fun at, I had clear athletic ability and wouldn’t put it at service to the community. It wasn’t that I couldn’t belong–I chose not to. And that was a threat.
And it had nothing to do with physical ability. This was a rejection (on my part) of a socially accepted ritual and what became a vicious condemnation of my lack of proper attitude.
As an adult, when I mention from time to time that I don’t care for sports, I still get an odd look. Occasionally someone cracks a joke about there being “something wrong” with me. Real animosity only emerges in arguments over public funding of sports.
And that’s where the business comes in.
It’s a cliche to call it bread and circuses, but look at it! If it only involved the private sector, I wouldn’t get nearly so exercised about it (pun intended), but we distort our politics in the name of sports.
We have consortiums of owners and investors demanding tax underwriting for sports arenas. Very expensive sports arenas. Usually, all the benefits go one way. Payback is given lip service. Here in St. Louis, any two or three of the private investors could have paid for a new arena out of pocket, so to speak, without missing a digit from their golden parachutes. But no, they wanted state funding. None of the penalty clauses in the proposed contracts held them to anything. And, given the history of such things, it is doubtful that money would ever have been repaid.
People were rabid in their defense of the need of a new arena. Never mind the fiscal benefits, WE NEED THIS! THE CARDINALS COULD LEAVE!
Monopolistic cable owners held Miami hostage several years ago when the city council had the chutzpa to propose new regulations on them and suggest opening the field to competitors. How did they get Miami to cave? They threatened to black out the Super Bowl. The city caved.
How often do you see that kind of support for a new museum or a university (outside of its athletics program)?
But I think the worst distortion takes place in education.
Murray Sperber has published a book called Beer And Circus about the effects of big-time college sports on the universities and institutions that host it. Sperber’s conclusions are that it is a net loss financially–it costs more to have a high-profile college sports program than the institution ever gets back from it. Other university deans have been addressing this lately.
And the pass many college athletes get academically because of the presumed (imaginary) financial benefit to the school and, more importantly, the Prestige accruing to a “winning team” is criminal.
It’s not even that they get a walk through their curricula. It’s the glory. What would happen to our civilization if we heaped the same kind of praise onto Math majors or physics students who excelled in their fields? What if a biology graduate got a parade when a grant program gifted him or her with the money to do some serious work?
On the flip side, if a member of a school chess club got a girl drunk and raped her at a frat party, how long do you think it would take to have that kid in jail? But if that kid is a star athlete, the world bends over backward to make excuses for him and keep him free to play at the next Big Game. (I exaggerate here, but not by much–we have debate over what amounts to criminal behavior on the part of sports stars, debate that would never happen in the case of, well, anyone else.)
Why do we ignore achievement of the Mind in order to worship achievement of the body?
Partly, this comes from our being Sensate creatures. The physical is there, before us, it is us, and we are naturally concerned with it. And I stress, the perfection of the physical, the striving toward physical achievement, is certainly laudable. As much as the perfectibility of the Mind. When the body works better, the mind works better.
But when we base our own self-image and the self-image of the community–not on the perfectibility of the body (because we all know that figure skating or gymnastics programs do NOT get the same kind of attention, either financially or popularly, as football or basketball, and that most people are completely unaware that there are fencing programs, archery programs, etc) but on the adrenalin rush of WINNING THE BIG GAME–we shortchange so much else and present to ourselves the least important aspect of being human.
The corruption and cheating and the lack of ordinary behavioral standards that go hand in hand with high-priced prestige sports should tell us everything we need to know about what is wrong with the way we treat it. Winning–never mind fair-and-square or anything to do with team spirit, etc–just Winning has become the goal and the defining characteristic of America. True, you have to win in a certain way–cheating must be limited, but not because it’s “wrong” but because you might get the trophy taken away if you’re caught.
I’ve gone on at length because I wanted the chance to stress–often–that I’m talking about Sports, not athletics. Sports is a ritual, a religion, and it is the National Religion of the United States, and its adherents are zealots every bit as unwilling to see things in perspective as conservative fundamentalists. Sports is the arena of the blessed, the gifted, and those who do not worship at the alter of Winning are heathens and suspect. Because we do not require people to live up to the standards displayed on the field, we only require that they watch and memorize the stats and know the players and pony up their money.
I watch the Olympics from time to time and find that I am not at all bored or offended. I don’t like to call them Sports because still, even with the growing presence of money and ritual, those people are Athletes. We understood the difference once when we required that Olympic contenders be amateurs. We understood that once they take money and join a Sport as a professional, it’s not about perfectibility anymore.
I think we’re losing our ability to tell the difference