It’s Never Just a Game

My son and I watched the Miami Heat lose last night, ending their winning streak at 27 games. I think we were both disappointed, even though neither one of us are really Heat fans. For my son, I think he recognized a missed opportunity. The Heat were 5 wins away from breaking a pretty amazing team record. I’ll admit that I was hoping they would hold the streak and then lose to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.

While sports commentators do have a tendency to get a tad melodramatic (Dick Vitale never met an adjective he wasn’t ready to use), one of the guys on the post-game show wondered if this was a game that transcended the season. Fans, he noted, will remember where they were this night. At first glance, such a claim seems silly. After all, yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the most important civil rights issue of our time. North Korea is aiming war heads at Hawaii. Simply put, I’m guessing everyone out there can list 10 things more important than the Miami Heat’s winning streak. (Well, everyone but the Miami Heat.)

But, I’m not so sure the guy’s claim on ESPN is necessarily off base.

I can remember watching Pete Rose break Ty Cobb’s hit records and sitting through the entire Baltimore Orioles game so I could watch Cal Ripken, Jr. take a victory lap celebrating his consecutive game streak. Heck, I even tuned in when the Connecticut women’s basketball team won their 89th game a few years ago. I don’t really remember anything about the game, but I do remember that feeling of empathetic happiness as I watched them celebrate.

There are times, it seems to me, when some games and sporting events do transcend the season and capture the world stage. Last night’s game is fodder for conversations around the water cooler.

Even so, it’s never really surprising to me when I run into people who don’t like sports. I’m not shocked if people didn’t watch the game last night, and I certainly recognize that there are millions of people who don’t care that the Heat missed out on the record.

But it is always surprising when I run into people who are dismissive or hostile to sports. At a meeting this morning, one of my colleagues offered a spirited (and relatively aggressive) dismissal of ESPN, college sports, and wondered, quite frankly, why people waste their time on sports. Geez, I thought, I don’t like opera but I don’t think it’s a waste of time for those who do.

I also, though, get a bit peeved at people who are so dismissive of sports.

In 2010, an estimated 91 million Americans watched the Super Bowl. By comparison, the 2010 mid-term elections, with a higher than normal voter turnout, had 90 million voters. On any given fall weekend at the University of Michigan, U of Tennessee, U of Texas, and other major universities, 70,000 to 100,000 people march into stadiums to watch college football. And that’s just football. NASCAR races routinely draw 100,000 ticket buyers and baseball draws around 75 million over the course of the year. Add in basketball, soccer, hockey, and other professional sports and it’s not hard to imagine that sports saturates American culture. Consider that every major newspaper has a sports section. ESPN runs 24-hours a day with sports news alone, and Fox has regional sports outlets across the nation.

There is a reason we use sports metaphors to describe politics; not political metaphors to describe sports. Quite simply: sports has become America’s religion and sports figures serve as our mythological heroes, and, at times, our sacrificial goats.

It is easy to wax philosophically about sports, moving athletes into the pantheon of greatness and immortality. But, we do a disservice if we forget the practical and social importance of the way games impact American culture. Kevin Grace, University of Cincinnati archivist, notes that early American immigrants saw sports as “socializing force, an ‘Americanizing’ force.’” Understanding sports became a part of the fabric of the American tapestry for early immigrants. Sports offered a sign of American prosperity and American democracy. Men, women, children left work or school for three hours in the middle of the day to watch baseball; colleges battled for supremacy on the grid iron; and by the mid 1930s, nations battled for ideologies at the Olympics. For Americans, sports united us in our loyalty to our country and bound us to our communities. Athletes became our heroes, epitomizing the American dream and creating ritualized events that captured our imaginations.

Sports offer the illusion that order is possible, a momentary stay from the confusion of daily life. The playground movement begins in the early 20th century, coinciding with the rise in participation in sports. Early street ball games slowly moved to sandlots and play grounds. This participation fed a desire to escape the everyday drudgery of city life, a need to return to pastoral settings to express oneself. In a country where different traditions and different cultures were clashing, sports offered rules that transcended those cultural differences: Catholics, Protestants, Whites, Blacks—everyone got the same number of pitches and the base paths stayed the same.

It might be “just a game,” I want to tell my colleague, but sports in America represents the best and, at times, the worst our culture has to offer. In times of trouble, a nation might wonder “where have you gone Joe Dimaggio,” searching for the solidity and poetry that is sports. We watch as sports erects barriers and then breaks them down; we witness the triumph and tragedy on television, at the local YMCA, and in little leagues. Most important, sports in America gives us the chance to witness: to see and recount, to tell a story. In the telling and in the seeing, we bind ourselves in our shared culture.

And that strikes me as pretty darn important.



About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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