Can Sports Save Us?

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Oliver Lee Bateman explains why we should pay closer attention to the sports that we watch.

While watching a poorly hand-cammed1 version of the movie 42, I arrived at the following conclusions:

  1. Chadwick Boseman bears a striking resemblance to Jackie Robinson.
  2. If it weren’t for his undeniable Harrison Ford-ness,  more people would acknowledge that Harrison Ford is a great actor.2
  3. The baseball scenes, which I expected to be atrocious, are perfectly acceptable.
  4. In twelve months, nobody will remember that this movie was ever made.
  5. Sports can’t save us, nor can we learn anything from the actions of ostensibly gr8 men such as Branch Rickey or Jackie Robinson.

Allow me to elaborate on the last of those points.  In the wake of the fulsome praise directed at Jason Collins for his decision to disclose and thereafter discuss his sexual orientation in the pages of Sports Illustrated3, it is imperative that we distinguish between the appearance of an important sign of social progress and the actual significance thereof.  What is notable about Collins’ declaration, and also about Robinson’s arrival in Major League Baseball, is that these were mere stages on life’s way; in both cases, something had to give.

Mind you, this is not to derogate the value of either action but rather to underscore that they did not occur in a vacuum.  In Robinson’s case, the “lords of the realmwould either admit African-Americans on their terms or continue to allow African-American businessmen to control a small but notable slice of the postwar baseball market4.  Collins, aware that the closet had become an impossibility in today’s changing sociopolitical climate, made a perfectly reasonable decision under the circumstances to get out ahead of the weather.  In neither instance did professional athletics, considered institutionally, redeem our fallen society or show us the way to a better tomorrow.  Yet many folks, particularly those who do not study or even watch sports, never seem to tire of making such claims.

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If sports cannot save us from ourselves, what purpose do they serve?  As someone who identifies, at least secondarily, as a sports historian, I’ve wasted a lot of precious time that could have been better spent absolutely killing it at video poker grappling with this question.  I still don’t have a comprehensive or definitive answer5, but I believe that I now have the germ of one.

See, within the discipline of history there’s this ongoing debate about whether historians should emphasize change or continuity when discussing the past.  Unlike the question of whether the US History survey taught to freshmen should be split at 1900 instead of 1860 or 1865, this is actually a conversation worth having.  If one chooses to emphasize change, he or she risks exaggerating the “pastness of the past.”  In other words, the gunslingers of Deadwood and the immigrant workers who participated in Pittsburgh’s “Hunky Strike” become the occupants of an alien land, their weltanschauungen inaccessible even through careful analysis and sympathetic readings of whatever primary sources they’ve left behind.  Taken to its illogical extreme, the writing of history itself is made impossible–how could anyone truly tell the “story” of such a past?  But, on a certain level, we recognize that this is unsatisfactory; the past, as Walter Benjamin so eloquently noted, is continuously piling up behind us as we are blown forward into an eternal present.  Thus, it stands to reason that certain continuities warrant our attention:  hasn’t humankind always loved, laughed, hated, warred, ached, wake-and-baked, etc. in much the same way?  Shouldn’t the long run receive priority over a handful of well-known but ultimately unimportant historical events?  This too has its flaws, given that our very mentalities are altered over time as new concepts enter and re-form our discourses.  That isn’t to say that a figure from the past, magically brought forward into the future by the machinations of some Doc Brown-style mad scientist, couldn’t eventually translate his thoughts into our language6, but situating this out-of-time individual within a new paradigm would take some doing.

At the risk of wandering too far afield, let me conclude this aside by stating that, while I find the debate fascinating7, I have no horse in the race.  However, I have devoted a great deal of attention to popular culture generally and sports specifically because I believe that these subjects can serve as a lens through which we might better perceive what everyday people in the past were thinking about.  What do I mean?  Well, consider how much time you spend talking with your friends about sports or television or fashion or some other inane bullshit.  If you add it up, it probably amounts to a considerable portion of your waking life.8 If one of my successors (hopefully much better compensated on account of how Future People will treasure public education) is seeking to give his audience a window into your thoughts, he will ignore the likes of Kim Kardashian and Terrell Owens at his peril.  In other words, sports are not intrinsically important, but instead derive their importance from the fact that so many people in a given society pay attention to them.9

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The 1998 Major League Baseball season was one such moment when national attention fixated on professional athletics.  Enamored of the back-and-forth home run derby between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, fanboy-ish sportswriters waxed poetic about how these two demigods had redeemed a game still trying to recover from the devastation wrought by the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

When these two unfortunates were revealed, along with countless others, as PED users, the reprisals were swift and brutal.  Now we got the other story that sportswriters will never tire of writing:  Can sports be saved?  The public continued to watch professional baseball–in fact, the sport is now more profitable than ever–albeit with a sort of weary-yet-aggrieved belief that the men they watched were all dirty rotten cheaters.

In this case, we have a clear example of how a sportswriter-imposed and utterly fantastical narrative can obscure the actual historical value of sports.  The trees in our example consist of all this nonsense about who was “cheating” and who wasn’t; the forest is the much larger issue of how laborers in a specialized capitalist enterprise were modifying their bodies so as to extend their working lives.  This is, I believe, one of the signal questions of our current century:  what counts, in baseball or in any other endeavor, as “performance-enhancing?”  The stark, unsubtle response indicates to me that we do not yet possess a sophisticated enough vocabulary to discuss certain large-scale changes to what constitutes natural human performance…and that realization,even absent the provision of any concrete answer to the aforementioned question, is one of enormous significance.

There was nothing special about McGwire’s 70 home runs or Sosa’s 66 beyond the fact that these were high statistical totals.  Neither man was a hero; neither, upon being “outed” as a steroid creation, became a villain.  They were, however, two men among thousands who responded to a host of incentives (some economic, some narcissistic) by electing to “artificially”10 enhance their physiques.  With millions of Americans enhancing their own performances using substances ranging from Adderall to Zoloft, McGwire and Sosa, like Robinson and Collins, are indicative of a larger societal shift–in this case, a shift toward better living through chemistry.

♦◊♦

Here, then, is my own contribution to the “can sports save us?” genre.  The answer is a resounding no, in principal part because the question itself is flawed.  Sports cannot save us, but if we reflect carefully on what we would otherwise consume in a mindless and haphazard manner, we may learn something about who we were and who we are in the process of becoming.


1. Alas, Jerry Seinfeld was not the cameraman on this film.

2. Srsly, watch Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast and then try arguing that Ford isn’t one of the 20 or so greatest film actors who ever lived.

3. Isn’t it curious that Collins elected to make this disclosure via a media outlet best known for its traditional print publication?  It  appears that the allure of the SI cover, curse or no, remains alive and well even in the age of Grantland and Deadspin.

4.  Follow that link.  Negro League Baseball by University of Delaware-based historian Neil Lanctot is easily the best work on this subject, one that is far superior to earlier anecdotal, impressionistic monographs such as Robert Peterson’s Only the Ball Was White (a groundbreaking book, to be sure, but now somewhat dated).

5. Even conceding, as every rational person must, that there are certain objective truths that can be apprehended by our minds, I can’t imagine that this is one of them.

6. An incommensurable or untranslatable language is, according to philosopher Donald Davidson, not a language at all.

7.  Not etymologically speaking, though.  That would be icky.

8.  Such a claim is valid for industrialized, First World (let’s leave the discussion of this fraught term for another time, eh?) societies; as applied to societies where the great majority of individuals eke out a meager subsistence existence, I doubt that the study of popular culture has much usefulness.  Fortunately, I’m a post-1945 specialist in US (not American) History!

9.  Note that I didn’t write that these folks claim that sports are actually important.  Aside from those “can sports save us?” pieces that appear in the wake of a major catastrophe or some socially significant feat, even most sportswriters would concede that the life of the spectator is one of superficial time-squandering–an exercise in mindlessness, as it were.

10.  “Artificially” as opposed to what, Stanford prof Henry Greely would ask.  What constitutes a “natural” performance enhancer?  Meditation?  Push-ups rather than barbell presses?  A good night’s sleep?  Should the consumption of  genetically-modified foods be taken into account?  &c.

 

Photo–Flickr/SD Dirk

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About Oliver Lee Bateman

Good Men Project contributing editor Oliver Lee Bateman is a columnist for Al-Jazeera America and Made Man Magazine. His writing has been featured in Salon, The Atlantic, Johnny America, Stymie: A Journal of Sport and Literature, the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, STIR Journal, Mic.com, and NAP Magazine. He is also one of the founders of the Moustache Club of America and Penny & Farthing, two blogzines specializing in flash fiction and creative nonfiction that he co-curates with web developer Erik Hinton, medical consultant Nathan Zimmerman, and freelance writers Christie Chapman and J. R. Powell. Oliver is a lawyer as well as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS or on Google+.

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