For a foreign visitor, the marvels of American society are many. So many that a year’s supply of blog entries are surely guaranteed.
Good news for me.
However, of the bushel of marvels waiting to be noted and singled out for attention, the most obvious is sports. And specifically, its 24-7, woven-into-the-daily fabric, nature. This is clear, of course, when one turns on talk radio and hears of political decisions that are “slam dunks” or economic strategists who get “blind-sided” by sudden shifts in global markets; there is talk by failing businesses, in times of desperation, of “throwing up a Hail Mary”, and there are unanticipated reversals of fortune that get labeled as “buzzer beaters”. “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” is a part of popular sporting lexicon, by way of opera. “Turn out the lights, the party’s over” was an expression that was first born in country music, but moved, via American football, into the societal mainstream.
I am sure you Yanks can think of others.
So, sports-think is ubiquitous. And that is because sports in daily life are pervasive.
One only has to be a high school parent to realize this. Any mildly active son (or daughter), attuned at all to peer pressure, conceptions of cool (or simply the advantages of getting a free pass out of PE) will insist on suiting up for the endless stream of seasons—from football, water polo or cross country in the Fall, to basketball or soccer in the Winter, to volleyball, tennis, track and field or baseball in the Spring. And isn’t that fun?: penciling in an extra 97 trips to school or else to outlying communities over freeways and through by-ways previously unknown, all for the chance of attending the unending successions of games, competitions, and matches?
(Things that didn’t get mentioned along with the decision not to wear a condom, eh?)
Moving right along . . .
. . . and then there is television. Turn on TV any time of any day and try to pretend you don’t know what this society is all about. In a word: the sporting life. It’s there. 24-7. (and to be sure there isn’t a coating of polyurethane wide or thick enough to coverthat
Just yesterday, a typical Saturday in November, I turned on the tube at 9 a.m. and was able to watch football until 11 p.m. at night. Often on three channels at once. Replete with warm-up and half-time and wrap-up shows. As if anyone would want that much football. As if anyone could possibly watch that much. But hey: America. Athletics. Non-stop action. 24-7.
Is this country great or not?
Then there was today. A Sunday. And just in my (Los Angeles) area, TV featured auto racing on two channels (is that a sport?), baseball from the Dominican League on another; there were four college basketball games, six college soccer games, one college volleyball match, two figure skating contests, a golf tournament, three horse race feeds, two pro basketball games, seven pro football games, nine professional soccer matches, and four tennis tournaments.
And this was only cable. Not satellite or anything beyond basic subscriber service here. Leading one to conclude: “ah, the cornucopia of comp!” The thrill of rivalry; the juice of going head-to-head.
Which is the real point here. Or at least one of them. Over here it is all about feeding the competitive hunger of the populace. Basic Id stuff. The aggressive drive of the viewer; the everday Joe and Jolene seeking out conflict, seeking a satisfactory, victorious result.
Fail to get it, have those drives gone unrequited, and risk stimulating the desire to inflict a black eye. Or commit road rage. Or worse.
That, my friends, is sports-oriented, tube-tied America today.
Actually America today is one more thing. Sports PLUS money. Sports with the overlay of cashed conflict. All for the satisfaction of a fan’s hunger. And the biggest platter serving the beast today has to be college sports. In this piece by Michael Lewis in Sunday’s New York Times, there was a rather illuminating lament about how football is the business that makes the university go round. Much of this is old hat for those who live here; you’ve all heard this before. And it may not make a major impression. But the fact is that the millions—and here we are talking about the forty to sixty million dollar range—generated by football programs at many of the top-shelf universities (annually) has severe, most often un-reasoned consequences. As Lewis observes:
This is maybe the oddest aspect of the college football business. Everyone associated with it is getting rich except the people whose labor creates the value. At this moment there are thousands of big-time college football players, many of whom are black and poor. They perform for the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white.
That—also being my profile—means that I’m busted.
Lewis’ point—inferred from his column’s title—is the that the student-athlete has become a “serf of the turf”. “They are like Franciscan monks set down in the gold mine,” being asked to keep their heads down, picks turning up soil, sifting through the nuggets that they toss into the basket heading up to the light above ground. A light they will not soon see, not at least in this collegiate lifetime.
Taking this insight to the next logical level, Lewis asks: “why aren’t these athletes being paid for their services, rather than, say, offering what amounts (in the case of the most gifted among them) to donations of 4 or 5 million dollars to their universities of choice?”
Good question. And one which the universities are not at all about to entertain. For, to do so would necessitate big changes: not only in the way the sport is produced, packaged, marketed and distributed—by universities and TV networks, alike—but also in stripping off the thin veneer of illusion that has for decades wrapped the game in its sanctimonious innocence.
Those of you who follow college football know precisely of what I speak. We watched Ohio State get knocked off this weekend. Can’t wait to see it happen to LSU next week. And if not LSU, then Oregon or Kansas or Oklahoma or Missouri.
Kids banging heads on spec: for little or no pay—with little guarantee of eventual success—so that we fans who suffer through the daily indignities of our banal lives can live in this evanescent moment and come away feeling that we’ve lived. If only for a couple of hours.
The exploited and oppressed saying to the exploited and repressed: “exploited labor serve us, the fact of your exploitation be damned.”
This is one dimension of the competitive society in which Americans live. The nature of competition; of living it 24-7. Folks like me—visitors though we are, green initiates—still hankering for our Laker fix. Or the Ducks out in Anaheim. Or perhaps a Texas Hold-em telecast. Or even a soccer match from the Primera Liga. This thirst for competition is unquenchable. It is irrepressible. And it is precisely why there will be no “January Jubilation” in college football—a single-elimination tournament stretched out over a number of weeks among the elite of college football akin to college baskeball’s “March Madness”. For while the latter generates millions of dollars for universities and a single TV network, the former has too much invested in the opposite direction: multiple networks, multiple bowls and large-scale pay-outs to multiple teams [and their parent leagues] ensconced in multiple dedicated venues established over decades.
In short, too much institutional inertia for a good idea to upset and reverse. And too much good competition jazzing up too many sub-populations to be jettisoned and go to waste.
Another way of saying: over here, comp may be 24-7, but it is pretty much a jimmied prospect, a rigged game. The persistence of (athletic) competition is fore-ordained. And in that way, the (economic) outcome is too. Thus is it that the teams may rotate from year to year, the players’ names will differ, their specific acts of glory (and infamy) will change; the teams on top will rise and fall within a rather finite challenger pool . . . but the money coming in—going to the networks through advertisers, from the networks to the bowl organizers, and from the bowls to the schools—will ensure that the status quo will endure.
So, too, one more thing: the competitive itch. It will always be screaming out to be scratched.
And just as soon as that happens, will it be yearning for another rub.
After the next game in line. An hour or two later.
Long live the comp. 24-7.
// Notes from the Road
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