Sports

An update to the post below on the St. Louis Blues: is the fiftieth anniversary of an NHL franchise really “history” worth noticing? Isn’t there something juvenile about sports fanship, which ought to be beneath the notice of a professional academic?

Part of me thinks yes. I am aware of and actually agree with a lot of the criticisms of sports – especially professional sports, which are the purest expression of the capitalist imperative to privatize the benefits, and socialize the costs. In Europe, a soccer team is often a genuine expression of its local community, as there is a good chance that it began life as an amateur club organized by the people who lived there, and which may still be owned by community shareholders. In North America, by contrast, professional sports leagues were always cartels run by businessmen, who love to posture as valued members of a given community, but who have no problem moving their teams to a more accommodating place if they don’t get the subsidies they want – or who often have no desire to put together a winning team, as long as the money keeps rolling in. The players too are all mercenaries – only by chance do they actually come from the place they play for, and they can be traded away to another team at a moment’s notice.

(Then there are college sports, of the sort that Reinhardt sponsors at great expense and at great distraction to the academic mission of the university [or so it seems to many of us], and which seemingly injure our students with shocking frequency. I’ve often said that if any other activity produced injuries at the rate that sports do, it would be illegal. There has been talk about “rape culture” finding a home among certain teams; I don’t particularly believe this, but it is clear that at the very least teams can foster a certain cliquishness, thereby fragmenting the campus.)

On a more fundamental level, there is always the question of why? Why should anyone possibly care about the attempts of one group of five men skating around and trying to put a puck into a net while preventing another group of five men from doing the same in the space of sixty minutes? It’s not like they’re curing cancer or anything! But David Potter, author of The Victor’s Crown: A History of Sport from Homer to Byzantium (2012), has a good answer:

The crucial feature of sport is… not simply the contest, but the way it enables those outside the arena to feel linked with those within, and in so doing to feel (at least briefly) empowered by what they do. It is this aspect of sport that energizes and creates communities. It allows people to find themselves insiders in the game. And it is precisely these aspects that so infuriate many who think that the whole exercise is a massive waste of time and money, and who feel excluded from it, for whatever reason.

You don’t have to be a sports fan in order to respect the activity. Given the enormous amount of money spent on it, and attention paid to it, it clearly addresses a primal need in humans – so primal that it consistently trumps the obvious venality and fabrication – and is worth studying for that reason alone. (I say the same thing to my students about religion, with which sports fanship shares certain characteristics). And at the very least it provides a certain means of understanding the world through the vehicle of metaphor. Here is a list of baseball metaphors that I have husbanded over the years:

• “he’s out in left field” (i.e. inattentive)
• the “three strikes and you’re out” law
• doing something “right off the bat”
• he’s a southpaw (i.e., left handed – although this one isn’t all that common)
• calling a short person “short stop” (although this one is even less common)
• George H.W. Bush was “born on third base and thought he hit a triple”
• to “touch base” with someone
• a wrong answer is a “swing and a miss!”
• a surprise is a “curveball”
• an eccentric is a “screwball”
• something abstruse is a little too “inside baseball”
• the highest caliber of something is “playing in the big leagues,” while something less than that is “bush league”
• to have a high ambition is to “swing for the fences”
• to do something especially competently is to “hit one out of the ballpark”
• a bisexual is a “switch hitter,” while a homosexual “bats for the other team”
• a tough negotiator “plays hardball”
• to accept a challenge is to “step up to the plate”
• an estimate is a “ballpark figure”
• to be up against a deadline is to “be in the bottom of the ninth”

Then there is the wonderful teenaged-boy metaphor of how far you “got” with a girl, with first base being kissing, and so forth. If you didn’t get anywhere you “struck out” (perhaps because she was “out of your league”).

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” wrote Jacques Barzun in 1954 – a sentiment that remains true to this day.