OUT OF LEFT FIELD
SPORTS IN AMERICA--
Sports in America
Is Not Always Super
By STAN ISAACS
This is the first of two columns on the role
of sports in America
In this week of Americas colossal sports spectacle, let us examine a great American myth: that sports and events like the Super Bowl are peoples harmless escape from their troubles and woes of the real world.
The myth is propagated in high-sounding comments like the one from James Reston, the longtime New York Times sage. He wrote,Sport in America plays a part in our national life that is probably more important than the social scientists believe For sports and games, in a funny way, are not only Americas diversion and illusion, but its hope. The world of sport has everything the world of politics lacks and longs for.
For Boobus Americanus, to use H.L. Menckens inelegant phrase, sports is not a diversion and an illusion, but a passion and an obsession. Sport is not Americas hope because sport not only has everything the world of politics lacks and longs for, but it reeks with many of the evil and corruption of the backstage conflicts of politics.
Sport ceased being as pure and uplifting as we like to think of it a long time ago--if it ever was pure and uplifting. Sport is big business, a sprawling multi-billion-dollar industry which is, in certain respects, worse than other industries because it makes hypocritical pretense of a love of fun and games to cover up the prime goal of making money.
"There is no other business in this country, wrote Leonard Shecter in The Jocks, "which operates so cynically to make enormous profits on one hand, while demanding to be favored as a public service on the other.
This is a time of a national financial crisis, when every day brings more news of people losing their jobs, of the stock market collapsing. Yet the Yankees, who got more than $900 million in tax free bonds from New York City in 2006, just asked for and got $372 million more because of stadium cost overruns.
These are the stunning pin-striped figures from the Lords of The Bronx:
C. C. Sabathia, $161 million over seven years;
Mark Teixera, $180 million over eight years;
A.J. Burnett, $82.5 million over five years
At the same time the Mets are benefiting from an outrageous deal with Citibank. In the face of taking bailout money from the federal government, Citibank is going ahead with the deal bequeathing $400 million on the Mets for the rights to name the new Mets stadium Citi Field.
The corruption of sport is not confined to the greed of owners. The big money and the adulation we heap upon big men in short pants playing little boys games have produced a race of paper lions bursting with hubris.
When we make demigods out of men who can throw a baseball or sink a golf putt, we are all demeaned. Excess feeds upon itself so that we not only overpay them for their value in the marketplace, but we rush to bestow honors and awards upon them far out of proportion to the service they perform to society.
Indeed, it may be doubted whether the modern system of cultivating athletes, namely by a fierce competition stimulated by heavy bribes, does not inflict positive moral injury and a hungry greed for more money earned without toil, of all the passions that renders the heart most callous. Nobody is quite so hard as the professional sporting man, quite so incapable of pity, remorse or self-restraint in the pursuit of gain.
That was written, not recently, but in 1870 in a British magazine. As a sports reporter, I had to learn to accept that even some of my best work was part of a process helping to create false idols. Its an unusual athlete who retains the ability to continue to see himself and his place in society in true perspective.
The attitude of many professional athletes toward the people who pay them was symbolized in incidents involving altercations in Baltimore many years ago. An argument involving players of the Orioles and Chicago White Sox resulted in the kind of harmless pushing and tugging match that passes for warfare on big league baseball fields. Later, though, there was an argument between an Oriole player and a home fan near the first row of seats. When the fan tumbled onto the field in a physical involvement with the player, he was pummeled, not only by the player but also by his teammates. They rushed to maul the fan with a ferocity not seen in their earlier waltz with adversaries on the opposing team.
On one hand we hold up sports champions as examples to youth; on the other we see a playing field morality that says anything is okay if you get away with it. Getting away with it for a long time has meant: use drugs that will enhance performance. Even tennis matches are under a cloud of suspicion these days.
Many fans dont enjoy the game for the artistry of technique. We have, in the main accepted the received truth of former football coach Jim Tatum that winning isnt the only thing; its the main thing (it was Tatum and not Vince Lombardi who first said that) We enjoy victory only.
There is grace and beauty and a deep camaraderie in sport. I covered some of the greatest sports happenings of the second half of the 20th century. I have seen the best and worst in the arena, and to a degree, been enriched by it. It can be one of the most uplifting of activities, both for the player and the spectator. But much of it is lost when sports become an obsession, when it dominates a persons other interests, indeed when it is ones only interest.
There is concern that we are a nation of watchers, not doers. Is that bad? Well, suppose a man went to the movies every single night. If he werent in the movie business, that would be considered an unhealthy compulsion. But yet, thanks to television, it is now possible to watch sports events every night of the week and twice and three times over on weekends. And some people do that. There are men who dont have any real conversation outside of sports.
A victim of the obsessive sports climate is the poor soul who doesnt like sports. As a onetime sports page sage, I heard confessions from friends who expressed a sense of lacking in not sharing a passion for sports--even to the extent of learning some pat phrases so they could enter into Super Bowl or World Series conversations.
Bill McTiernan, an assistant editor at Newsday, once told me, I have been fleeing people who like sports all my life. Because they try to force their obsession on me. Baseball is the dark night of my soul. Baseball fans tend to be more vocal and they challenge you about things like standings and decimal points.
Does the ascendance of Barack Obama change this? I will continue this discussion in next weeks column.
©2009 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The illustration is a mix of images from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted Jan. 26, 2009.
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