Why Sports Don't Matter


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A sports column on this Culture Channel? Until fairly recently in the long history of The Atlantic, devoting space to sports under such a rubric would have been quite unlikely, and may invite skepticism even now. And so in the spirit of trial lawyers and spin doctors who counsel the tactical virtue of preemptively disclosing bad facts about your case or your candidate (at least those bad facts that are known to your adversaries) let me start out by playing devil's advocate about the merit of this venture.

It is quite true that in his heartfelt tribute to God's Country and Mine the French-born Columbia University humanities professor Jacques Barzun's claimed, "whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." Yet however often Barzun may be quoted, it has actually proven quite possible to go about the business of writing about American culture, history, and character as though baseball's mythic inventor, Abner Doubleday, had never drawn a breath. Historians of the left (Howard Zinn), the right ( Paul Johnson), and the textbook center (Arthur Link and John Garraty) have written histories of the American people without paying any attention to the "national pastime," or indeed any sport at all. Henry Steele Commager 's classic account of The American Mind accorded sports no place within that apparently capacious subject matter.

And, in truth, Barzun's own observations provoke more questions than answers about the links he forged between the "national pastime" and the national character. Barzun was writing in 1954, when historical polling data suggest that baseball was enjoying it all-time high in popularity, and his dismissal of "vulgar predatory sports" of football and basketball as not providing similar insight into the American spirit ring oddly a half century later when those sports have either eclipsed (football) or rivaled (basketball) baseball for public favor. Has the "American character" undergone a comparable transformation in the ensuing half century? Or was Barzun swatting foul balls in the first place?

Similarly, efforts to link events on the playing field to happenings in society at large, even when more ambitious than the "Babe Ruth stepped to the plate and homered as the stock market hit an all-time high" mode all too typical of the "sports in society" genre, tend to prove elusive. Even such an apparently transformational event as the breaking of organized baseball's color line by Jackie Robinson have proven grist for inconclusive debate about its significance, if any, for the civil rights movement at large.

Although it is something of a commonplace to link the mood of the city to the fortunes of its sports team—as is now the case with the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl win and the post-Katrina revival of that city's spirits, or that of the Yankees' narrowly thwarted World Series bid in 2001 as an upbeat tonic in post-9-11 New York—what difference have such conjunctures really made once the final whistle blows? Yes, New York City Mayor John Lindsay's unlikely reelection got a boost from the 1969 New York Mets' World Series upset victory. (Or more particularly from the news photos of the uptight patrician being doused with champagne in the joyous Mets' locker room.) And or perhaps Massachusetts's Democratic nominee Martha Coakley's misidentification of Red Sox World Series hero Curt Schilling as a "Yankee fan" contributed to her downfall in her recent unsuccessful bid for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Otherwise, though, it is hard to find examples of sports actually changing the course of events in the world at large. (And with all respect to the iconic Morgan Freeman's, er, I mean the even more iconic Nelson Mandela's, embrace of South Africa's Afrikaner- dominated rugby team depicted in the movie Invictus, I would wager that events would have played out in that country more or less as they have even without that surprising act of fandom.)


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That is not to say that looking at sports does not reveal truths about American society as it has grown and changed over time. However, they are truths that would be evident without looking for them on the playing field or in the bleachers. Yes, baseball's expansion out of the northeast quadrant which housed all 16 of its teams (in only 10 cities) until 1952 evidences the rise of the Sunbelt and the decline of the industrial city, but that is hardly an obscure sociological discovery. A word play-prone writer might connect steroid use—those "weapons of mass distortion—and financial derivatives—banking's "weapons of mass destruction—but would hardly be coming up with breaking news about the irrational exuberance that afflicted both spheres of action in recent years.

That Pepsi Cola directed its advertising dollars towards Facebook in place of traditional Super Bowl ads tells us something about the emergence of digital media that we already knew. At a time when we are engaged in two long wars that do not make similar demands on the population at large, it is sobering to recall that the America that fought the Korean War had no qualms about inducting Philadelphia Phillies' ace Curt Simmons into the military just before the Whiz Kids made their first World Series appearance in 35 years or drafting Willie Mays for two seasons after the New York Giants'1951 miracle pennant. But we already knew that the war on terror is not the Cold War as far as public perceptions are concerned.

In some ways, too, the psychic stakes of sports seem diminished these days compared to former times. International competitions have lost the political edge that made the 1936 "Nazi Olympics" or the US-USSR track meets of the early 1960s—proxy for "nuculer combat toe to toe with the Russkies" being waged in that era's Dr. Strangelove—moments of riveting competition between ideologies and ways of life that reflected the high stakes being played out on the stage of world politics beyond the arena. The last such was probably the 1980 US ice hockey victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and amidst the hostage crisis in Iran.

But enough with the skeptic's case! Making the case for sports as a proper subject for a culture channel will be the ongoing business of this column. Stay tuned.