Saturday, February 20, 2010

In Defense of Sports
One failing to which I think everyone is prone, but self-styled intellectuals especially, is to extrapolate from one's personal likes or dislikes some larger conclusion or principle. So it is with Christopher Hitchens, who's evidently not a sports fan:

I can't count the number of times that I have picked up the newspaper at a time of crisis and found whole swaths of the front page given over either to the already known result of some other dull game or to the moral or criminal depredations of some overpaid steroid swallower. Listen: the paper has a whole separate section devoted to people who want to degrade the act of reading by staring enthusiastically at the outcomes of sporting events that occurred the previous day. These avid consumers also have tons of dedicated channels and publications that are lovingly contoured to their special needs. All I ask is that they keep out of the grown-up parts of the paper.

Or picture this: I take a seat in a bar or restaurant and suddenly leap to my feet, face contorted with delight or woe, yelling and gesticulating and looking as if I am fighting bees. I would expect the maitre d' to say a quietening word at the least, mentioning the presence of other people. But then all I need do is utter some dumb incantation—"Steelers," say, or even "Cubs," for crumb's sake—and everybody decides I am a special case who deserves to be treated in a soothing manner. Or else given a wide berth: ever been caught up in a fight over a match that you didn't even know was being played? Or seen the pathetic faces of men, and even some women, trying to keep up with the pack by professing devoted loyalty to some other pack on the screen? If you want a decent sports metaphor that applies as well to the herd of fans as it does to the players, try picking one from the most recent scandal. All those concerned look—and talk—as if they were suffering from a concussion.

I'm not actually sure what the point of this column was; it seems mostly to do with the current Winter Olympics, about which I'll admit to personally not caring at all, and he makes a half-hearted case that sports competition , rather than helping to facilitate greater comity as is sometimes alleged, can actually worsen relationships between different countries or communities.

But mostly it seems to me that Hitchens has taken his personal dislike for big-time sports and spent some Newsweek column inches trying to justify it in a broader sense, to make a virtue out of his preference. I sort of get where this is coming from. I've never watched a minute of "American Idol" or "Survivor" or any of the various imitators of those two TV franchises. At times I've been tempted to draw some larger, self-justifying conclusion from that personal choice. During the 2008 Democratic nominating contest, I might have found the news that while Hillary Clinton's favorite show was "Idol," Barack Obama's was "The Wire" (which I hadn't even seen to that point, but knew was probably pretty great; now I consider it among humanity's greatest achievements) somewhat comforting in that it reinforced a conclusion I'd already drawn.

Really, though, who fucking cares? Cultural preferences are just that.

The more interesting question to me is whether we can make a positive argument for sports in the culture, one that perhaps even justifies its intrusion into that part of the newspaper Hitchens feels should be reserved for reportage on "crises." Given the Phillies links on the side of the page and the fairly frequent posts about the Eagles and other NFL/MLB subjects here, it's probably not surprising that my answer is yes. I can think of at least two arguments for this view.

One is that sports really does provide common ground for people who might otherwise not have an easy time communicating, or even find it possible. It's a class leveler: the CEO and the guy who sells her coffee every morning might have nothing else in common, but if he wears a Yankees cap and a series of player jerseys and she never misses a home game, they've got that. New York, with its abundance of teams, actually isn't a great example for this; a city like New Orleans, even discounting its traumas in recent years, probably comes together far more completely when they have a cause for joy like the Saints. And this isn't necessarily about home-team affinity either; as a displaced Phillies and Eagles fan, I have a direct rooting interest against most of the people I talk to here. But at least I can talk to them knowledgeably about baseball and football (and to a lesser extent, about the lesser sports). That's already helping at my new job, as it has in probably every one I've held since I was 21.

The other point is one Hitchens likely would dismiss with a sneer upon hearing, but maybe would grant had something to it two years later, after thinking about it: that sports simply provides another context for the same narratives we find compelling in other formats. Whether it's the "hero's quest," the temptations of new fortune, redemption, addiction, coping, adaptation, material want, sacrifice, blind luck or twenty other things, it's all there, funneled through a high-stakes ringer set up to produce drama. To dismiss sports is in some sense to dismiss story itself.

Whether or not one is a follower of sports has largely to do with family, culture and context. My parents were big football and hockey fans when I was a little kid; the Phillies of Schmidt, Carlton and Rose were great at the time, and my grandparents were baseball fans, so I got that too, and found that baseball was the one I personally liked the best--maybe because the cards were the most interesting. It seems to me that suburban kids, boys especially, are the most likely to develop strong sports loyalties; that's probably the biggest way in which they identify with "their" cities, which at least when I was a kid 25 years ago were otherwise commonly presented as dirty, dangerous places. In any event, intense sports fans with other things in common (family connections, work, outside interests) form communities of affinity that seem to me stronger than most: they gather to watch big games, or form fantasy leagues for low stakes and bragging rights, or--as I'm doing in three and a half weeks, counting down not just the days but the hours--taking trips to spring training or other sports destinations.

I started my new job this past week the day pitchers and catchers reported to Florida. It was a pretty good first day anyway, but that annual mid-February day, to my recollection, has never, ever not been a good one.

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