In The Godfather, Part II, dying mob boss Hyman Roth wheezes the obscene truth to young Don Michael Corleone. “Michael,” he whispers, “We’re bigger than US Steel.” This scene updated for 2004 could have Yankees kingpin George Steinbrenner booming at pubescent Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, “Screw US Steel. We’re bigger than the damn mafia.” Just like Hyman Roth, “Big Stein” would be telling no lies. Professional sports are now the tenth largest industry in the United States, generating $220 billion in revenue every year. And just like Roth’s rackets, it’s a business that stinks to high heaven.
If, in 1900, a forward thinking person had predicted that sports would some day stand as one of the great pillars of American industry, that person would have been proclaimed mad and then subjected to some combination of leeching and lobotomy. The Victorian idea that sports undermined character and promoted a slothful work ethic dominated most people’s perceptions of organized play. Their attitude, however, is easy to understand when you consider class. Competitive sports were a working class pastime that reflected the brutality of early industrial life. Popular sports of the day included bare-knuckled boxing, “stick-battling,” cock fighting, and animal baiting, which involved setting starved dogs against a bull or bear.
But at the turn of the last century, an upstart generation of wealthy industrialists was forging a new idea about these innocuous games. Industrialist J. P. Morgan and former President Teddy Roosevelt argued that organized athletics could be the means for instilling the character and values deemed necessary to make America a global power in the century to come. Sports could breed a sense of hard work, self-discipline, and the win-at-all-cost ethic of competition. Roosevelt once said, presumably while swinging a big stick, “We need to produce young men who are sporting chaps filled with vim, and schooled in the competitive spirit.” Teddy and his ilk backed their words with bucks. Business scions funded organizations like the YMCA to teach sports.
As the popularity of sports rose among working people, factory owners began to see the benefit of establishing plant teams as a form of labor management. This synthesis bore team factory names that remain today like the Green Bay Packers and the Milwaukee Brewers. The Chicago Bears, who trace their roots to Decatur, Illinois, were known as the Decatur Staleys, named after the A. E. Staley Company. Their first coach, George “Papa Bear” Halas, was a Staley manager. Organized athletics gradually became less a place to toughen up Teddy Roosevelt’s gentlemen of leisure than a narrow window of opportunity for immigrants, white urban youth, and people right off the farm to claw their way out of poverty. Players who captured the country’s imagination included a Baltimore orphan named “Babe” Ruth, Native American Olympic star Jim Thorpe, and the first renowned female athlete, a daughter of immigrants named Mildred “Babe” Didrikson. In the words of another first generation American, Joe DiMaggio: “A ball player’s got to be kept hungry to become a big-leaguer. That’s why no boy from a rich family ever made the big leagues.”
As the US urbanized, it was evident that people would pay to see sports played at their highest level. The 1920s and 1950s, two decades with very similar economic landscapes, saw this idea take root. Both were periods of expansion and urbanization. Both eras saw an expansion of technology–radio in the 1920s and then TV in the 1950s–that could deliver sports into people’s homes. But, most critically, both were times after brutal world wars that saw a population in the United States looking for relief, escape, and leisure.
Sports and Lee Greenwood
In addition to becoming a profitable form of mass entertainment, pro sports have become an effective means for the political and financial elite to package their values and ideas. This is why sports in this country reflect a distinctly US project, rooted in aspirations for greatness as well as conquest and oppression. The US is unique in playing the national anthem before every game (and, since 9/11, playing “God Bless America” during baseball’s seventh inning stretch–even for all-American teams like the Toronto Blue Jays). We are unique in employing scantily clad women to tell us when to “cheer.” We are unique in calling the winners of our domestic leagues “world champions.”
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.”