Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Sports: Is It Worth It?

Growing up, I played numerous sports. Baseball, basketball, football, even track and soccer (back when very few people played it). I lettered in a couple in high school, although frankly I was a mediocre athlete playing for terrible teams. How bad? I averaged more fouls than points in basketball. And I hit under .200 in baseball (and drew not a single walk in my entire high school career).

Still, I grew up loving the game of baseball. As foolish as this sounds, I even tried to take up the sport professionally, obviously to no avail. By my early 20s, however, I experienced an awakening of sorts. This was during the period right before starting my collegiate career. I would read on my spare time, in between the multiple, slave-wage jobs I worked, to prepare for college life. Those were also some of those intellectually rewarding years of my life. This was when I read Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Rousseau. This is when I began reading the classics, like the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire--an appropriate read for those who wonder what will become of the US in the next century. These were works that for the most part were not assigned in my courses in college (with the exception of some of Marx's easier tracts). It was in this
intellectually stimulating environment that I came to realize what a sham sports was, how much time I wasted on it, and that in essence sports in this country had become a useful diversion to keep people docile, like the Roman bread and circus.

In spite of my growing dislike for most sports, I still watched and loved baseball. Ironically, it seemed like the one pure sport to me as a child. I know, this is silly, and appears even sillier now when we consider what has become of baseball, its players, and the legitimacy of the game itself, but the recent steroids scandal has only forced me to confront this game in the way the Church's policies on just about everything compelled me to reject my birth religion in adulthood. There is no way one can be honest with him or herself and take seriously the records of a sport where the setting of those records is steeped in a criminal act that would get anyone else thrown in jail. An act that directly leads to manipulated increased productivity, while raking in almost $3 million a year per capita for the players. Any time when what constitutes your union is filled with millionaire Republicans, you know you have a problem.

All of this has forced me to make my final break with professional and college athletics, although baseball was really the only remaining sport that I paid any attention to. This may sound trivial to my fellow academics who have no life but their studies, and would consider sports a waste of valuable time (the one commodity people in academia value the most). In a society that rears you to worship these overpaid players as demi-gods, such expressions border on heresy in the dominant cultural narrative. Think of the time allotted on athlete-entertainers who see you, at best, as a cretin--at worst, a non-member of their little club who should be excluded from consideration (all the while profiting off the backs of those same fans who frequent their product).

Probably the most important function of sports, though, is the useful manner in which it creates an acceptable public sphere in which concepts of togetherness, community, and a communal effort are encouraged, instead of denounced as socialist, communist, or un-American. Where else but in sports could someone openly declare that individuals should subvert their wants for the common good? Of course, this form of the commons does not cost anyone money, except the fans who consume the product, which is why it is so acceptable. Just imagine how much better our communities would be if we knew who our members of Congress were, as opposed to the contortions of some celebrity.

I understand that there will be those who will say, what about Mohammad Ali or Jackie Robinson? Yes, what about them? When was the last time they entered the arena of competition? Does anyone honestly see Alex Rodriquez campaigning on behalf of conscientious objectors or people without health care? Remember Michael Jordan's response to the Nike shoe sweatshop factories? In fact, when was the last time a multimillionaire athlete actually did something political that did not involve praising Jesus Christ for their athletic triumphs or endorsing George Bush? There is a reason why "politically conscious" athletes no longer exist. They make too much money to care what those who do without have to endure. If anything, it seems almost illogical to expect such people to care about anything other than protecting their bank accounts.

If athletics is a reflection of our society, then we should see most of the athletes and their teams' owners as basically being indifferent to the fawning public that adores them. But Roger Clemens cares, alright. He speaks out, finally on something--to deny his own use of performance enhancement drugs--because if we thought for one second so many of these people were drug addicts it might offend the children. I can guarantee that Roger Clemens's investment adviser is not worried. That is because at the end of the day, the owners and players know the fans will come back. They know how gullible we truly are. They know that we only care about our favorite players and teams doing well, which is why Barry Bonds is so beloved in San Francisco or Pete Rose in Cincinnati.

That is, until now. For me, to the remaining game that I loved, I say, good riddance.
I will no longer contribute to stuffing the coffers of people who make $27 million a year to hit a ball with a stick, while nearly 50 million people in this country go without healthcare (the people who really could actually use some drugs). There are worthier ways to spend my time, like re-reading Alfred Steinberg's The Bosses--just because I want to.

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