Man’s love affair of sports stretches across time.
I know you love sports. I do too. But have you ever wondered what’s compelling us to tune in everyday? To watch SportsCenter as if it lends the insight of The Daily Show? To scramble for online box scores like they’re stocks? Or to strut around in an oversized jersey like you’re a fourth-stringer waiting for a call?
I sense it’s because as men, we’re drawn to the raw battle, the salaciousness of the crowd, and the charge of victory. Man has always fought for survival, after all, and the history of our tribal minds, of our capacity to test wills, and ultimately, of our drive to compete, has fueled the modern sports narrative to ever greater heights.
Man’s love affair with sports began 2000 years ago with lions, tigers and bears—and 50,000 salivating maniacs in the bleachers. The contest within ancient Rome’s gladiatorial arena was the original big ticket fixture and the precedent to our modern sporting obsession. Of course, today’s well-padded gladiators don’t tussle with wild beasts, but the set-up is much the same: combatants face off inside monolithic stadiums, owners size up their takings, and results are scrutinized in the public forum. And yet, at the heart of each performance, is the star’s desire to entertain, to elevate himself beyond the vapidity of everyday life.
The concept of “star power” might be universal, because from the colossal Roman Empire to high-tech San Jose, very little has changed. But the most persistent trend from those sandal-wearing days are the meanings men attribute to sports, which are not merely born of the action itself, but instead created for us by vested observers. For modern man, seemingly removed from the brutality of the gladiators, conquerors, knights, and cowboys, and presumably more enlightened than Neanderthal man, the commitment to sports is largely initiated by the reporting of it. Sports are important because they generate headlines, not simply because they are scheduled. Sure, we all have personal affiliations to the home team and love watching our favorite players, but these ties can only exist within a much broader framework, one that is reinforced by the conversations about it. In Rome, the reporting was certainly less structured, more verbal, but equally as robust. In today’s wired world, it’s prolific.
The most influential sports content producers—the SportsCenters, Real Sports and Monday Morning Quarterbacks of the world—encode sports with its social value through their dedicated coverage. In other words, their storytelling is paramount to our level of interest. They present us with the sports star and the big game, advertise weekly fixtures and promote accolades. They paint glowing portraits of heroic figures who stand for honor, purity, and all that’s right in the world. They build legends on statistical measurement and embellish their character by regaling the brief glories: a walk-off home run, a winning touchdown catch, or a three-point buzzer beater. As a result, sports idols, and the pantheon in which they operate, take on a cultural significance beyond most other endeavors: even our own jobs. This shaping of the sports industry in which idealistic qualities like Tom Brady’s leadership, Derek Jeter’s loyalty and Kobe Bryant’s determination supersede the athlete’s actual personality, and equally influence expectation that men should aspire to such levels, has not only pervaded our social consciousness but is part of our everyday vernacular. Sports are pitched to us as if the outcome is dire. Phrases like “against the odds,” “in the face of adversity,” and a “gut-wrenching defeat,” for example, don’t just warm the airwaves and use up pixels, they funnel our thinking about sports. It’s these narratives, perpetuated since the all-time ratings winner of David versus Goliath, that lure us in like a Kardashian bikini shoot.
So yes, we want seats behind the dugout and at the 50-yard, but where’s the personal connection? What are we actually rooting for? The disparity between the sports star ideal and the actual player is essentially what triggers our emotional response–that moves us to tears, or indeed cheers. It’s this metaphorical gap within each storyline which provides the media with a premise to speculate and prognosticate, and promise the romantic. It’s this stirring of expectation that piques our curiosity and leaves us wondering, will the sports star be showered with adulation at game’s end, or knocked from their pedestal? And if we as fans are emotionally invested in the action, then will we be closer to understanding these events? The storytellers set the agenda and make us care, stitching us into the sports fabric. As President Kennedy once said, “We are inclined that if we watch a football game or baseball game, we have taken part in it.” It’s this sense of ownership that invites the sports fan in. Something else, however, makes them stay.
On the last day of 1967, more than 50,000 people attended the coldest NFL game in history. The NFC Championship between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys was played at Lambeau Field but may as well have been in Antarctica. Why would anyone sit inside a virtual ice box for three hours? In hindsight, witnessing the hometown Packers ride Bart Star to a 21-17 victory in the face of a minus forty-degree wind chill, makes perfect sense. But then again, nobody knew the “Ice Bowl” would be a classic in which Starr played the hero on a final minute one-yard sneak. The fans’s commitment that day was founded on hope. In many ways, positioning athletes in narratives that sell is fairly arbitrary. Most journalists turn their own lens to decipher the angles. Think about the perceptual canyon between the New York Yankees duo, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, for instance. Both are superstars and future Hall of Famers, and yet, we love Jeter and loathe A-Rod. Why? We don’t really know either of them, other than the things they do on the field and paparazzi photos in the tabloids. Clearly we’re influenced by what’s often hyperbole and gossip from influential commentators. But in truth, we gravitate toward the exaggerated portrayals because not only do they help categorize the man, but offer an escape from our everyday lives. Sports counter our routines with unique rules, playing fields, and their own system of meritocracy. They gift us an alternative, a fantasy that engrosses and entertains beyond reason. So, if you’ve ever wondered why you’re so hooked on fantasy football, think about the thousands of conversations it prompts in which you play a role in constructing the story.
Now you might think that sports as a cultural phenomenon is bigger than each of us. After all, the four major pro sports leagues are worth about $23 billion combined. As such, we see sports and its many ancillary activities as a crucial part of our economy. It’s true that the way club owners and general managers sign, swap, trade, draft and cut athletes with the same frivolity they might exercise in a game of Monopoly, is intrinsic to sports social, psychological and political value. For some, this is the real sport, and plays as much a role in the reporting of it as the statsheet. For instance, David Garrard became a $9 million-dollar cost-saving for the Jacksonville Jaguars last year, which sub-marined the fact that he’s tossed a 61 percent career completion rate and 16,000 NFL career passing yards. Still, a commodity ultimately needs a point of difference to keep succeeding, no matter the bottom line. And in the world of sports, just as it was in the gladiatorial arena, that selling point is “drama.” Behind the media’s devotion to the biggest pro sports products there’s a powerful subtext, a primal narrative in which the protagonists battle, survive and finally conquer their opponent. It’s no coincidence that the NFL, which scoops $3.8 billion from its TV deals, according to Forbes, is built on this very premise: overpowering the opposition in pursuit of more yardage. The game is entrenched in this militaristic philosophy, which is why famous sequences like Joe Montana marching the San Francisco 49ers the length of the field in Super Bowl XXIII, don’t just make good TV, but rouse something inside each of us.
For the mainstream media, this all adds up to the perfect story: a staged contest that fittingly resembles the drama inside the ancient coliseum, from which they can carve a gripping tale of heroes and villains. Men, especially, respond to the publicity, anticipate the players’ sense of urgency and survival, and dream of a vicarious victory. Because it’s enthralling. Because it’s deemed socially important. And because if we don’t care about our bravest and most talented athletes, then what kind of men are we? John Elway’s Drive, Michael Jordan’s Shot, Willie Mays’s Catch, and the Men’s U.S. Hockey Team’s Miracle on Ice, are seminal moments in the the history of male achievement. Yes, our perception of these sports events are enhanced by the media, overvalued by economists, and entrenched more deeply within our popular culture than art, music or theater. But of course, that’s why they are so undeniably compelling, and vital to our collective manhood.
Photo credit: Flickr / juggernautco