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A Neanderthal's Rebuttal

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I wrote this in 2003, but somehow haven't revisited it for a while. Give the recent stadium kerfuffle, it seems like a good story to revisit, especially because it reflects a core tenet of this site: sports ARE important, and we don't shouldn't apologize for thinking so.
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Reject the fundamental assumption. After that, the arguments start answering themselves.

This Sunday morning I was awakened by our 3-year-old son, at the customary time of 0-dark:30.

"Dad. Is it mording?"

"Do you want some breakfast?"

"Yeah. Ana muffin. Ann milk."

"What do you say?"

"Pwease?"

Without waiting for a response, he speed toddles to the kitchen while I went to get the Sunday paper. Big mistake. Because by the time I was putting the lid on his sippy cup, I was already seething over the editorial by Jay Weiner on the front page of the Op Ed section of the Star-Tribune.

"When the sports furor dies down" is more rhetoric about how sports plays too big a role in our society. In particular, it points out that while the Twin Cities have been absorbed by the Timberwolves and Wild, the real world is still there, and it has real problems that we should start paying attention to. This argument is so common it's become a cliche: "It's just a game." What kills me is that sports fans, athletes and sportswriters simply nod in agreement, shrug their soldiers, and grunt something like "Yeah, I guess we're Neanderthals".

It's funny that I never see editorials like this about other distractions from the real world. I've never seen a column talking about how people need to quit visiting art museums so they can concentrate on the spread of SARS. Or that we need to collectively take a step back from listening to composers so we focus more on CNN's coverage of the War in Iraq. And the reason we don't see columns like this is because the thought it ridiculous. We go to Orchestra Hall and the Walker precisely because they provide an escape from our everyday lives. They challenge us. They show us new ways to look at the world. They provide us glimpses of truths by reflecting them in a dance or a painting or a movement.

Are sports so different? People who tuned into Game 7 between the Wild and Avalanche weren't doing so out of civic duty. They did so because it was a hell of a story. A hockey crazed state finally regains a professional franchise. Within three years, they assemble a collection of dependable but mediocre veterans and young talent, and somehow make the playoffs. Which lines them up to face the hottest (and one of the more expensive) veteran teams in the playoffs. Their fate seems sealed when they are a single loss from elimination, but they win a couple of high drama games and advance to face their division rivals.

Are you kidding me? Take your pick of truths to reflect upon: Self-sacrifice? Complacency? Youth? Hunger? Patience? Hard work? Confidence? Trust? Each of us takes away the feeling and glimpse that sticks with us. And we won't know which one it will be, in part because this isn't some trite drama where we know the ending. It unfolds for the actors at the exact same moment as it does for the masses.

But it's the existence of those masses that provides the real distinction between sports and the arts. One never sees columns like this about the arts because the arts don't attract as much attention. Sports is damned precisely because the masses do get caught up in the drama, and they will pay a lot of money to be a small part of it.

And that's the fundamental assumption that makes me fume, moreso since I started watching out for this little fella providing the morning wake up call. The fundamental assumption is that if the public is paying attention to it, it must be crap. The fundamental argument is one of elitism, and once it is questioned, the rest of the argument falls apart.

Why is watching sports so popular, both in terms of ratings and revenue? We've already covered that it provides compelling drama. It's also instantaneous, spontaneous and unpredictable. In addition, it's accessible, since most people have a passing familiarity with the skills involved for various games. That familiarity leads to discussion and feelings of community. Sports also translates well via mass media, such as print, radio and television.

There are a multitude of other reasons as well, all of which only start to become apparent when you reject the basic assumption that the public is a bunch of morons. But that assumption is rarely questioned. We assume it is correct. Ergo, sports is, at best, a guilty pleasure. Ergo, we are dupes. This is precisely the hidden point of this sort of rhetoric, that the writer sits in judgement of where we provide our attention, or of the values we embrace.

When I became a parent, I started becoming sensitized to this sort of game, to help my kids avoid the little traps that clever people play. As I watched the boy disperse muffin crumbs all over the kitchen floor, I wondered about the level of insecurity that would lead a person to attempt to convince folks that enjoying a baseball game with their family is irresponsible. And I seethed some more. Does this call for a letter to the editor? An email? I took a deep breath and decided instead that I needed something to reaffirm my faith in humanity.

Maybe I'll see if I can get four tickets to the next Twins homestand.
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Comments

  1. Teflon's Avatar
    For the pure love of the sport, a person could spend their evenings at the charming ballparks in Jordan or Chaska watching townball. The professional ballparks we build are pure hubris, however. You can say whatever you want to try and rationalize it, but these places are more about making us feel signficant than anything else. I love Target Field - but I can also acknowledge the absurdity of spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on it.
  2. nokomismod's Avatar
    Target field to me makes a lot more sense than what the Vikings are asking for. I think Target Field was ~450 million and that brings 81 games a year. It's outdoors and we all know the dome stunk for baseball.
    The Vikings are asking for $1billion for 8 regular season games a year. The the worst part of all: It's indoors!
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