Many people express great shock when I tell them I have absolutely no interest in sports, except perhaps to actually play them – at least when I was younger. My childhood, however, was filled with sandlot games of baseball and football. I even played basketball for my school in the 8th grade! I was a precursor to Muggsy Bogues at 5’3”. I did not play much but the coach gave me a school letter out of sympathy as he commented on my team spirit. I still have the letter and someday will sew it on a white cardigan sweater and let my wife wear it as a sign of affection and that we are still “going steady.” My brother and I collected baseball cards that came in a pack of stale bubblegum. If I had those cards to sell now, I could be retired in real luxury.
Back in the 50s professional sports was down-to-earth for children. Bob Feller of the Indians regularly visited our day camp to talk to us and sign autographs. Junior Wren of the Cleveland Browns rented a home behind my house for several seasons. Nobody paid much attention to his presence in the neighborhood. No reporters ever hung around. As a paper boy, I spoke to him once to ask him to subscribe to the paper I delivered. To my chagrin he declined, as it was the end of the season. When he was a coach for the Indians, Eddie Stanky (also nicknamed Muggsy!) rented the home of one of my grade school classmates for several summers about 5 minutes from my house. My friends and I would go over there to play with the Stanky children. I was 14 and to me Eddie was just another “watchful” father. And so he should have been as I was very much interested in his daughter, Georgia, to whom I wrote each year when she returned to their home in Mobile, Alabama. Alas, my interest was unrequited. She never wrote back. She has since died. In 1954 my best friend and his father invited me to the World Series (the second to last game) between the Indians and the Giants played at Cleveland’s Lakefront Stadium. I was thrilled. Regrettably, Cleveland was to lose and not win a pennant again for decades.
In the fifties, the players were often part of the fabric of the community. They lived among us and for the most part lived modestly. Kids could wait at the players’ entrance of the Lakefront Stadium and ask for autographs which were freely given. Even as an adult years later, Willie Mays, whom I met in a suburban Washington shopping mall, readily agreed to give me his autograph to give to my 8 year old brother-in-law. No charge, but Willie was not very chatty. Now you have to pay for autographs in carefully organized events whose proceeds go to who-knows-where or who.
Professional and even college sports have morphed into a circus of corporate greed and the fleecing of the public. Outrageous ticket prices, demands for subsidies to build stadiums and outlandish salaries are the norm for today. Games are primarily a background for advertising which can be found on just about every square foot of sports venues, on uniforms, and then again, if you have not had enough, during commercial “breaks” (this is a misnomer since the entire process is one advertizing binge). Home team loyalty is a joke, with players going to the highest bidder. Cities are threatened with the loss of a professional team if the locals do not come through with tax breaks, bond levies and other goodies for the corporate bosses and players, most of whom were not born in, and do not even live in, the city for which they “play.” Think of the stealth move of the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in 1984 in the dead of the night because the city would not fork over money to improve the stadium. So much for home town loyalty. Even when stadiums are built with public monies, they are named after some corporate entity such as FEDEX, Staples or MetLife, another not-so-subtle advertising ploy.
The pre-game hype for any year’s Super Bowl is a well planned effort to milk every dime from the fans whose notion that the teams care about the city they purport to represent is pure fiction. Proceeds from sales of memorabilia fly out of the city to corporate coffers of the millionaire and billionaire club and franchise owners. People who buy this junk become unwitting walking advertisements for the rich, whom they will never see and to whose homes they will never be invited. A vast transfer of wealth from those who can least afford it to those who fly in corporate jets and live in gated communities far from the hoi polloi whose money they have in effect stolen. These sports tycoons operate from a playbook that rivals those of state lotteries and other schemes to separate the citizens from their money and give practically nothing in return.
Young women fall all over themselves to become “cheerleaders” for professional teams whose players earn millions and whose “cheerleaders” receive nothing or, worse yet, even have to pay for the privilege of wiggling their tits and asses for the TV audience. They become, for all intents and purposes, unpaid prostitutes hoping to be seen by some talent scout from Hollywood, but there is likely more of a chance that they will be propositioned for a movie part by a porn mogul from the San Fernando Valley.
Florida journalist Pier Angelo recently wrote of the Super Bowl in Counterpunch: “The spectacle is reminiscent of the barbaric gladiator fights of ancient Rome. Muscle-bound specimens in helmets and heavy armor hell bent on trying to kill or maim their opponents. A match played in five seconds increments, probably because they can remember or execute only one play at a time. The game is constantly broken up by loud commercials and field interruptions. After 3 hours of terminal boredom the score is probably 21 to 6. A goal/touchdown sometimes counts for 6 points sometimes for 7, another ingenious American way of creating high scoring games. 21 to 6 in soccer lingo is simply 3-1.” (His article can been read in its entirety here).
The actual games and commentary are carefully choreographed events whose language is designed to sell a particular game and ensure continued fidelity from the crowds. Announcers blab incessantly about the most moronic of statistics on every player, every coach and every game. These “stats” are then endlessly repeated among men sitting in bars who demonstrate their bona fides as males by bonding over meaningless minutiae. Heaven forbid these conversations turn to important matters of the day such as homelessness, the environment, war, hunger, etc. Sports today has become a diversion from a reality that may soon crush us but about which few are speaking. Karl Marx wrote about the opiate of the people being religion. He was wrong. It is today the circus we call sports.
I am reminded of the satirist Juvenal’s “panem et circenses.” He wrote “Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
And don’t get me started on the Olympics…