February 18, 2002

Sports Are the Devil:

Silence. A second passes. Two seconds. Three seconds. Until someone finally utters, “Excuse me?” So I repeat myself. “How about them Bears?” “Do you mean the plight of polar bears in Alaska?” asks George. “No, George, I mean the Chicago Bears. They’ve won four in a row. I think they’re for real this year. The D looks great, and the A-Train is virtually unstoppable.” My colleagues are repulsed. Only seconds ago, we were discussing the myth of postmodernism and the state of current cinema. I hear someone mutter “barbarian” as if he were Niles Crane on Frasier. “So you’re a sports fan?” asks Neil. “Yep,” I respond. “How could you be a sports fan?” “Easy,” I say. “You just start watching the games on a consistent basis, root for a team, check out the latest stats, read an occasional--” “You know what I mean. How could you waste your time on such commercialized filth?” I gulp down the rest of my espresso. (When you’re discussing the myth of postmodernism, you drink espresso.) “It’s true that sports have become overly-commercialized,” I say to Neil, “but, then, what hasn’t become overly-commercialized in America? Religion? Politics? Education? The Internet?” I laugh. “If commercialization is the basis for dismissal, then let’s not just reject sports but every other activity in America.” I reach for my espresso cup to take a self-congratulatory sip. On the way up, I realize that the cup is empty, so I take an air sip. (It’s important to take a drink after you’ve made a strong remark; it functions as an exclamation point.) “Well, it’s not merely the commercialization of sports that is bothersome,” chimes in Kyle, “but the absolute decadence of the sports community. How many times do we have to hear about athletes brutalizing women, abusing drugs, getting in a fight - in short, acting like untamed animals?” Neil pats Kyle on the shoulder and gives him an approving look, as if to say, “You took the words right out of my mouth.” Both of them reach for their espressos. This accusation has always puzzled me, primarily because it often comes from those who associate with the Left. If this accusation came from the Right, I could understand. The Right is known for using words like “filth” and “decadence.” So I ask them the following question: “Why the sudden infusion of morality?” They freeze. “What about politicians, professors, ministers, musicians, writers?” I ask. “You act as if athletes are the only ones in privileged positions that behave disgracefully. You shake your heads at the lewd behavior of these ‘ghetto millionaires,’ and, yet, you celebrate artists who fashion masterpieces from their chaotic and unruly lives.” (It’s always good if you can subtly imply that there is some racist or elitist angle that has gone unrecognized.) Their two cups go down in unison, but I feel obliged to say something more, to end my point with a greater bang. “Each of you adamantly defended President Clinton from the hounds of the righteous Right, but now you’re claiming that professional athletes are immoral. Imagine if you heard a news report about a black athlete getting a sexual favor from one of the team’s young interns. You’d no doubt shake your heads in utter disapproval. I’m not saying that we should accept or overlook the criminal acts of athletes, but if we are going to dismiss professional sports because of a few shady characters, then we also need to dismiss politics, religion, education, and the arts.” I take a deep air sip and let out a great big “ahhh” afterwards. The three look at each other dumbfounded. Neil finally exclaims, “Okay, so maybe everything is commercialized, and maybe there are politicians and priests that are equally corrupt, although I bet the ratio is not nearly as bad. But you can’t tell me that sports are as significant as politics or religion. I mean, in the end, sports are just games created for our amusement. Fans huff and puff about who is going to win a game, but what does it really matter?” George and Kyle are giddy and give Neil awkward high-fives. No doubt, it’s the best point they’ve made. It’s true that sports will not get you to heaven or hell. Of course, it’s also true that sports are not the only things we have invented to amuse ourselves. Quite frankly, spending an evening with other doctoral students, contemplating some obscure, insignificant, academic text, often feels just as empty and meaningless to me as spending time discussing a sporting event (although I frequently enjoy both). Now, I do not mean to imply that everything is as empty and meaningless as sports. Nor do I mean to imply that sports are meaningless and empty. (I personally believe that sports have made a significant impact on American culture--and mostly for the better--in a rather subversive manner.) While I think religion, politics, education, and the arts are important, I don’t think all of it is important, in the same way that I don’t think all (or most) of sports are important. But there are plenty of things that we engage in every day just for the pure joy of it. I say none of these things to Neil, George, and Kyle, who appear to be mighty pleased with themselves, sipping away and slapping each other on the back. In their minds, they have successfully justified their distaste for sports and validated their own preferences. Although I feel compelled to say more about the cultural impact of professional sports on America, I dare not miss the opening of SportsCenter. So instead I just smile and raise my empty cup. “Here’s to the Bears,” I say. “May they survive the degradation of their Arctic habitat.” ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Disclosure: George, Neil, and Kyle are invented straw men. My hope is that those who disagree with me will look absolutely foolish. I have done everything I can to simplify their perspective. If for some reason, you feel that George, Neil, or Kyle resembles you in a creepily accurate manner, I apologize (not because they resemble you, but because you resemble them). -----------------------------------------------------------------------

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