What's My Name, Fool?
In many cities, your average Sunday NFL game contains more patriotic overkill than a USO show in Kuwait. First there's a military drum line to midfield. Then a standing sing-along to "I'm Proud to Be an American (Where At Least I know I'm Free)" by Lee Greenwood. And then comes the "Star Spangled Banner." You are certainly "free" to not stand, as long as you know that the guy behind you will feel "free" to pour beer on your head.
Why Sports Matters
Many throughout the US are repelled by pro sports today for a laundry list of reasons. People who otherwise enjoy competitive play performed at its highest levels don't want to be party to the cutthroat competition at its core. Many are also put off by the insane salaries of the games' top players, others by the back room dealings that produce publicly funded stadiums at taxpayer expense. Then there is the abuse of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, which some feel have taken long-hallowed baseball records and reduced them to rubbish. When you pile on the way racism and sexism are frequently used to sell sports, it can all seem about as appealing as a Sunday in the park with George Steinbrenner.
The way that the games have been shaped by profit and patriotism has quite understandably led many people to conclude that sports are little more than a brutal reflection of the savage inequalities of our world. As even Noam Chomsky has written:
"Sports keeps people from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it's striking to see the intelligence that's used by ordinary people in sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in--they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kinds of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this...Sports is a major factor in controlling people. Workers have minds; they have to be involved in something and it's important to make sure they're involved in things that have absolutely no significance. So professional sports is perfect. It instills total passivity."
Chomsky correctly highlights how people use sports as a balm to protect themselves from the harsh realities of the world. He is also right that the intelligence and analysis many of us invest in sports far outstrips our dissecting of the broader world. It is truly amazing how we can be moved to fits of fury by a missed call or a blown play, but remain too under-confident to raise our voices in anger when we are laid off, lose our healthcare, or suffer the slings and arrows of everyday life in the United States.
The weakness in Chomsky's argument, however, is that it disregards how the very passion we invest in sports can transform it from a kind of mindless escape into a site of resistance. It can become an arena where the ideas of our society are not only presented but also challenged. Just as sports can reflect the dominant ideas of our society, they can also reflect struggle. The story of the women's movement is incomplete without mention of Billie Jean King's match against Bobby Riggs. The struggle for gay rights has to include a chapter on Martina Navratilova. When we think about the Black freedom struggle, we picture Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And, of course, when remembering the movement for Black Power, we can't help but visualize one of the most stirring sights of our sports century: Tommie Smith and John Carlos's black-gloved medal stand salute at the 1968 Olympics.
The history of how social struggles have exploded onto the playing field is vibrant, thrilling and very real. More importantly, it's a tradition that arms us with the ability to challenge the dominant ideas in that swoosh adorned ivory tower. The problem is that the most compelling parts of our history, the parts that have the most to show and teach us today, reside forgotten on the ESPN cutting room floor. For example, we may know that baseball was segregated until 1947. But we don't know the story of Lester "Red" Rodney, the sports editor of the Communist Party's newspaper the Daily Worker. Rodney ran his 1930s sports page as an organizing center to fight for baseball's integration. This campaign garnered over a million signatures, collected at ballparks around the country. Rodney's is just one of many inspiring stories in the annals of sports history.
Chomsky's view also reflects a lack of understanding of why sports are, at their core, so appealing. Amid the politics and pain that engulf and sometimes threaten to smother big-time sports, there is also artistry that can take your breath away. To see Michael Vick zigzag his way through an entire defense to the end zone, or Mia Hamm crush a soccer ball past a goalie's outstretched hands, or LeBron James use the eyes in the back of his head to spot a teammate cutting to the basket can be a glorious sight at the end of a tough day. It is a bolt of beauty in an otherwise very gray world. As a good friend said to me long ago, "Magic Johnson will always be my Miles Davis."