Two interesting pieces in recent days, taking aim at America’s two historically most popular sports.
1) Steve Almond has a new book out, Against Football, and a lengthy article in the Village Voice (and elsewhere) about the moral evasions inherent in media coverage of a brutal industry. Almond is writing as a very long-time (though now former) fan, who knows well the game and the entities that cover/publicize it.
From that vantage point, Almond is particularly exercised by the role that sports in general, and football in particular, have come to play in American cultural life:
“…sports — and football, in particular — is no longer simply a form of entertainment. It has become something closer to a national religion, a form of devotion that shapes the emotional lives of millions of men and women and unites us as no other cultural activity can.
It is my own view, as a fan, that football weds the essential American virtues (courage, strength, perseverance, sacrifice) to our darker national impulses (conformity, militarism, competitiveness, regenerative violence). It is a brilliantly engineered athletic drama that offers us narrative complexity and primal aggression.
At the same time, football has become the nation’s most prominent growth industry. Commissioner Goodell — a man paid nearly $30 million in 2011 — has made no secret of his financial ambitions. The NFL reported revenues of about $10 billion last year. Goodell’s stated goal for the league is to generate $25 billion annually by 2027, which would put the NFL in the company of global behemoths such as Nike and McDonald’s. College football has the followed the same eye-popping trajectory, which has, in turn, led to the rampant commercialization of the high school game.”
I’m not convinced that the role of sports in society that Almond identifies is new in the way he suggests. It’s long been a cultural unifier, an escape, a haven for redemptive morality tales and “absolution to the easily deluded.” It is true, though, that those who cover sports are, for the most part, trying desperately to make football palatable to a society witnessing ever-changing social norms.
For example, Almond highlights what he regards as the tortured coverage of the Ray Rice case, in which the relatively light suspension NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell meted out to Rice after his apparent assault of Janay Palmer, generated significant outrage.
Almond regards the episode and its coverage as so much spectacle:
Those who pose as the industry’s critics have to pretend awfully hard that they hate violence and misogyny and greed and homophobia while at the same time promoting a game that is, objectively speaking, violent, misogynistic, mercenary, and homophobic.
The top-tier talkers manage to sound utterly convincing, even as they craft arguments of dazzling fraudulence and obdurate illogic. It appears never to have occurred to Cowherd that football might be a culprit in America’s cult of violence. No, that crisis can be pinned on brutes from the lower castes hopped up on sadistic fictions. It is the feral inclinations of such men — and not, say, the fact that football is vicious enough to cause brain damage among its players — that keeps Cowherd from taking his son to a game. The poor lad might be subjected to a brawl in the stands.
What marks Cowherd as a true pro is his ability to tap into the meta-narrative of grievance that undergirds all punditry. It turns out the Rice case really isn’t about football at all — it’s about governmental negligence and corporate greed! Fortunately, there are intrepid voices inside the FIC (football industrial complex) willing to speak truth to power.
Or, at least, sell absolution to the easily deluded.
The connection between football and larger social ills is difficult to identify with any great precision. More immediately apparent is the hazardous nature of the game itself for its participants and the imperative for the FIC to “soft-pedal the savagery of the sport.” This is where the presumptively redemptive nature of the sport is deployed most urgently. Here, Almond notes the especially insidious narrative of rescue of (mainly) poor African American boys from a hopeless fate by this ultimate embodiment of the American dream:
Of all the myths that get tossed around by sports pundits, the most despicable is the idea that football represents a path to redemption. Yes, the noble values instilled by the game are enough to rescue certain boys from ruin.
Nobody ever says it out loud, but these lost boys are understood to be poor and mostly African-American. (As the risk of brain injury causes more suburban parents to yank their children out of football, you can bet this percentage will only increase.)
But the FIC really isn’t about building character. It is about building football players. To this end, it essentially harvests young boys, segregates them from the general population, and trains them to run, jump, throw, catch, and tackle. Kids such as Michael Oher, the teen chronicled in Michael Lewis’s best-seller The Blind Side, are deemed worthy of rescue based on their physical potential, not their souls or intellects.
It’s a provocative and worthwhile essay.
2) Ben McGrath, in the New Yorker, laments baseball’s ongoing decline as a cultural touchstone. McGrath notes that, by the numbers – revenues and attendance – baseball is doing great. I’ve made this argument before. But McGrath says that baseball has a problem that is very real – a Mike Trout problem:
If Mike Trout walked into your neighborhood bar, would you recognize him? Let me rephrase: If the baseball player who is widely considered the best in the world—a once-in-a-generation talent, the greatest outfielder since Barry Bonds, the most accomplished twenty-two-year-old that the activity formerly known as the national pastime has ever known—bent elbows over a stool and ordered an I.P.A., would anyone notice? A few weeks ago, Trout, who plays center field for the Angels, hit a ball nearly five hundred feet. At the All-Star Game, he was clocked at twenty miles per hour—rounding the bases, on foot. Yet his Q rating is about on par with that of Jim, the guy in South Jersey whose burgers Trout’s mother sometimes mails, frozen, to her superhuman son in Anaheim, to keep him rooted in the tastes and comforts of home.
Trout has nothing like the cultural cachet of LeBron, KD or ‘Melo, nor many of football’s biggest stars. His lack of star power is symptomatic of a larger development, says McGrath. Baseball has become a largely regional game, buoyed by a confluence of media factors that have allowed many of its franchises to cash in on massive local television deals.
At Deadspin, Tim Marchman points to an additional factor – that baseball’s brain trust spent more than a decade denigrating its star players in the two-step process by which it cashed in on the excitement generated by the so-called steroid era and then bashed the players for their perfidy in undermining the traditional purity of the sport.
The NBA had a problem very much like this a decade ago, culminating in the Malice in the Palace in November, 2004. Its subsequent dress code and other measures to impose “respectability” on its players may or may not have helped the league’s public image. But the new generation of superstars then emerging – the LeBron generation – has made it easy for pro basketball to promote individual star power while maintaining a sense of decorum and corporate respectability that appeals to (largely white) upper middle class fans and corporate sponsors.