Friday, August 17, 2007

What we talk about when we talk about sports...

My brother watched a documentary on the Brooklyn Dodgers and had a question/comment that I thought was pretty interesting:

"Why are they talking about the Brooklyn Dodgers in the same way they'd talk about what happened on D-Day?"

Yeah - why do Americans get so solemn and pompous about sports?

Don't get me wrong: I like sports. I watch around 4-6 hours of sports and a few more hours of sports-related programming (news, etc.) each week on TV, I go to one or two sporting events every year, and I keep up with sporting news every day on the internet.

But, really, watching sports is just a leisure activity. Not that they aren't important (in some way) or that they shouldn't be taken seriously. But we shouldn't treat the story of the Brooklyn Dodgers' last season in New York as if it is as serious and important as, say, the story of the Prague Spring.

Following on things Camille Paglia and Paul Fussell have written, I get that in contemporary American society sports serve a kind of ritualistic function: they provide heroes and spectacle and a sense of community and common cause. Still, though, listening to someone like Bob Costas drone on about the dignity of some overpaid athlete, I can't help but think: "Get some perspective, man!"

I'll focus on what I think are two major "causes" of overly solemn sports talk: one that is sports-specific and one that is relevant to contemporary American culture in general.

First, forgive the armchair psychoanalysis, but I think there's a kind of institutionalized defensiveness in the world of sports journalism. I mean, sports journalists tend to be smart, literate guys who just know, deep down, that what they are covering is essentially frivolous. Not only that, but most - if not all - of them are pursuing a passion for sports that they've had since they were little boys. So, not only do they fear that what they are writing about is frivolous, they fear that caring about it so much is kind of childish. Because of these fears, they must never, ever talks about sports as if there was anything frivolous or childish about sports.

Second, across the board, we've lost perspective as a culture. I'm still not quite sure why exactly or when exactly it happened, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the mass media. The example I gave my brother is A&E's show Biography. Now, because Biography is a basic cable show, it has a standard format: this saves time and money and it lets them (fairly easily) churn out the content they need to fill all those hours of programming. But this standard format means that they end up presenting the life of Madonna the same way they present the life of President Eisenhower. Now, I'm not saying that shows like Biography are the cause or even a cause: rather, they're symptoms of a lack of perspective and they also help to reinforce this lack of perspective.

Maybe "perspective" isn't quite the right word. Perhaps it would be better to say that, culturally, we have trouble talking about certain things - sports, entertainment, etc. - with "right sized" language.

(Hey - I think this is related to something I wrote about in the comments section of this great Michael Blowhard post. I'll just quote myself:

There's also a hang-up about how high-arts & culture/academic folks in American talk about pop culture. The short version: the way we're supposed to talk about a piece of high art like, say, a Stan Brakhage movie, doesn't quite work if we're trying to talk about, say, Rio Bravo. Though some writers/critics make this work - see Michael Sicinski, for instance - for most people it just seems to get in the way.

I mean: in Cinema Studies grad school, we paid a lot of attention to American popular movies. But the profs and most of my fellow students did not approach them as popular movies. So, our prof presented Busby Berkeley's movies through the lens of Michel Foucault's theories and the class dealt almost exclusively with the question of to what extent Berkeley's work conveyed a fascistic ideology. There was no discussion of the musical theater/revue elements that Berkeley was drawing from or anything else involving the practical, nuts-and-bolts issues of these movies as entertainments. These issues were beneath discussion and I was shot down by the professor when I attempted to bring them in.

Likewise: Putting hot-rods on display in a museum, next to little placards explaining why they are important, seems to be missing the point. (I'm reminded that Manny Farber wrote that Scarface was one of the best movies ever but also said that it was definitely not art like you'd find in a museum).

This is why, as much as I love Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Fantastic Four comics, Robert Crumb's work in Weirdo, and E.C. Segar's Popeye comic strips - as much as I think these are among the greatest American arts & culture things - I'm not that enthusiastic about cartooning museums or "teaching" these comics in the college classroom, like you'd teach Faulkner. Not that they shouldn't be taken seriously, but part of what is great about them is that they don't come with "high art/culture" baggage - trying to load them down with it is kind of a drag. It's good to have conversations about arts & culture that doesn't assume a high art-centric p.o.v. or that bland "cultural studies" perspective that flattens everything out so that a toothpaste commercial is just as "interesting" as a Robert Altman movie. Personally, I liked that there was stuff out there that I could discover and engage with outside of any academic-high art-museum-"it's good for you"-"because you'll learn something about society" context.

This is definitely a subject that calls out for more discussion, though.)


James said...

I'm not enough of a sports fan to provide any meaningful insight, though I agree the mass media sports lingo is so pompous it's grotesque.

I also agree that we've lost perspective as a culture. Several years ago I was thinking about how much of my emotional life was connected to the Internet, radio, and television. In some sense, it's like ever since World War II we've become increasingly estranged from reality.

Rather than seeing this as a flaw in our language of art and culture, I think it's instead a (somewhat deliberate) effect of the modern economy and our political structure. We've gotten so dependent on instant-gratification, 24/7 entertainment, celebrity-culture, and incessantly repeated pre-digested news stories that it's almost impossible to think straight for any length of time. Back in the 1940's, they used to call individuals "hysterical" as a medical diagnosis; I think we've reached that point as a culture, too.

The Derelict said...

I wouldn't call sports or entertainment "frivolous". Maybe you're just overstating your case? I mean, they aren't the "highest things", certainly, but they bring us joy (a definite "good"), in a way they point to the highest things (more on that later) and so I don't think it's ridiculous to spend a lot of one's time thinking about and engaging in talk about a joyous experience, one that helps us better understand ourselves. Sports are ordered (with definite rules, with designated roles for the players and fans, with penalties for infractions, etc.) and thus reflect the ordered-ness of the universe. They also involve the potential for cheating, which, again, tells us something very important about ourselves. I think one of the reasons we treat them so solemnly is because they are communal, there's ritual involved in sports. The national anthem, the flag and sign waving, the formulaic cheers, the uniforms, the insignias -- sports have a lot of the same features as things like religion, ceremony. I mean, for the ancient Greeks sport WAS a part of their religion. If sports writers and announcers get a little pompous it's because they're not just talking about sports but about the very drama of life itself.

But, yeah, Costas can be pompous. ;)

Also, are Americans the only ones who are solemn about sports? I'm genuinely curious, not knowing much about sports culture in other parts of the world. If we are alone in our solemnity over games then that's just another point in favor of the U.S. ;)

One of my favorite things written about sports was from James V. Schall, his essay "On the Seriousness of Sports". I can't find it online but it's in his book: Another Sort of Learning.

Here's an excerpt that sorta gets at what I'm trying to explain above:
(I apologize for the length)

"Here, I will argue something else, something that may sound like a rather startling theory, but one held with tenacity. I want to suggest rather that the closest the average man ever gets to contemplation in the Greek sense is watching a good, significant sporting event, be it the sixth game of the World Series, the European Cup soccer finals, the center court at Wimbledon, or the county championships of his daughter's volley ball team. By this, I do not intend to argue or imply, as many do, that sports are a form of idolatry, that the game or the players are some form of divinities, even though the origin of games was often clearly related to worship. Perhaps the closest we get to the sense of what this might have meant is when at the East-West Shrine Game, eighty thousand fans stand silently at the Stanford Stadium while the flag is being raised or the "Star Spangled Banner" is played. We all perhaps recall the medieval story of the juggler who could not speak or pray or craft well, but who silently before the altar performed his juggling act. He was more pleasing than the rest to the Lord.

In any case, I take it as a simple fact of experience that the attraction of the game to so many ordinary people, in so many cultures, over so long a period of time reveals something extraordinarily important about us... The path to philosophy, in other words, often passes through the comic pages and the peach sports sections, often for the same reason... Just as the the most theological of the comics is probably PEANUTS, so the most brilliant of the philosophers filled his last book, THE LAWS, with reference after reference to games. Again, I do not think this is at all accidental. We are a whole. What holds us spellbound for a fascinating moment must not be totally unlike what holds us fascinated forever. What makes us laugh must be something not unlike the joy for which, as Chesterton said, we are made."

One final thought: I think the "right sized language" as you put it (and I love that phrase, btw) is something we've gotten away from, but not in the sense that sports writers have gotten too pompous in discussing their subject. The problem is not that we speak too highly of sports and entertainment but that we don't speak highly enough of the more "serious" things like politics, philosophy, religion. We give equal footing to entertainment and politics/world affairs/etc. because we don't take politics/world affairs/etc. seriously enough. That's why it seems like there's an imbalance. Sports journalists talk seriously about their subject while political journalists talk about their subject like they're discussing the latest scandal in Teen Beat magazine. I think both should be serious about their subjects, and it's not the sports writer who's at fault.

And now that I've written twelve pages, I'll leave off. ;)

Jon Hastings said...

The D. - Maybe "frivolous" is too strong. But, I don't know: I mean, I take sports and games and entertainment pretty seriously (anyone who has heard me talk about Nascar or The Burning Wheel or the Nicholas Brothers can attest to that). Still - telling the Brooklyn Dodgers story as if it is of world historical (or even national historical) importance seems just a bit ridiculous to me. I guess I think that taking sports seriously should sound a little different from taking, say, Abraham Lincoln's presidency seriously. (And maybe it's just a lack of creativity from our reporters and documentarians: maybe Ken Burns, for instance, isn't a talented enough filmmaker to come up with two different styles for presenting the war between the states and the history of baseball).

I think your comment also highlights another one of my "issues": I agree that sports serve that ritualistic quality - I get swept up in it myself every time I go to a Nascar race. But I'm a little concerned (?) about a culture where sports have become the major ritual, with everything else falling to the wayside. (Especially considering the realities of big business professional sports today).

Thank you for the Schall quote! Anyone who speaks so highly of Peanuts is obviously right!

And I think I agree with you regarding how politics are covered nowadays. The whole effect is pretty bizarre and off-putting.

James - Yeah - I think the 24/7 infotainment format has really warped our p.o.v. about what is really important and, more importantly, how it is important.