At this time every year I’m remindedas gently as the onset of a hurricanethat sports and hype are preternaturally synonymous nowadays. Akin to a national religious holiday, Super Sunday is a festive farrago of the American spirit. Super Bowl parties abound, veritable melting pots. Rich and poor, young and old, male and female, sports fan and non-sports fanthey all come. No one is sure, or cares, whether the game itself or the much-vaunted commercials and pre-game showstarring Tina Turner and maybe Madonna!are the real attraction. It is, after all, the dizzying mélange of sport, sponsorship and spectacle that makes this the epitome of American sport.
At one time an expression of civic pride, professional sports have become another feature of the entertainment corporate society. With teamssorry, "franchises"being bought and sold overnight and players selling themselves to the highest bidder, fans can scarcely identify with them. Needless to say, entrepreneurs are free to do as they please in this land of opportunity. But, as Benjamin Barber argues in his book Jihad vs. McWorld, increasingly we’re being asked to see ourselves as consumers, customers and clients, not citizensdespite the fact that it is our tradition of civic-mindedness that is America’s greatest export, not global giants like Disney and McDonald’s.
Mind you, I used to be a huge sports fan. Between the ages of 8 and 15, on any given fall or winter Saturday afternoon I could be found transfixed by whatever form of competition came onto ABC’s Wide World of Sports that day. My heart thrilled indiscriminately to billiards, giant slalom, bowling and speedboat racing. But I lived and died by football and basketball. After the Chiefs lost to the Dolphins in the longest game ever played, I sulked despondently for days. I (utterly unironically) aspired to play in the N.F.L., prefaced by a brilliant career at Notre Dame, and I felt every loss for the Irish as a deep personal blow. I measured the passage of time according to the sports seasons. I stormed and sobbed whenever I struck out in Little League (earning me the little-known Lachrymal Glove award), but most of my summers were spent shooting baskets50,000 shots per summer (yes, I counted)earnestly imagining myself running the fast break with Russell and Havlicek.
But things have changed. In big-time college sports, which are virtually professional, the term "student athlete" all too often is an oxymoron. A system that allows unpaid student players to devote the majority of their college career to an endeavor that yields huge financial gain for the school is haywire, to put it mildly. The celebrity athlete is by turns coddled and exploited, a two-faced approach that goes hand in hand with our shrill, hypocritical calls to "put education first." This is the same system that saw Clem Haskins, the University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach, receive a $1.5 million "buyout" after committing what observers around the country have called the most egregious violation of N.C.A.A. rules ever.
Moreover, as the recent spate of bowl games showed, collegiate sports, having gone to bed with corporate sponsors, have given birth to a species of game that is as much meretricious sideshow as it is athletic contest. Remember the Orange Bowl? Now it’s the FedEx Orange Bowl, joining the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the Southwestern Bell Cotton Bowl, the Wells Fargo Sun Bowl, the Nokia Sugar Bowl, the Toyota Gator Bowl and (my favorite) the Ourhouse.com Florida Citrus Bowl as paeans to the usurpation of sport by commerce. Telecasts are almost comically saturated with advertising, from corporate logos on the players’ uniforms to the Ford Taurus Pre-Game Show, the National Car Rental Halftime Report, the AFLAC Trivia Question, the Dell Game Solutions and the SunAmerica Update. What’s nextthe Microsoft Cornhuskers and the Nike National Anthem?
Sport and athlete alike are being further and further removed from, well, sports and athletics. You can hardly open a newspaper or turn on your television set without encountering the athlete as role model, spokesperson, demigod. While in some cases sports have been the vehicle for a young man’s "escape from the ghetto," the urge to equate the celebrification of sports stars with the expansion of opportunity is misguided and condescending, not to mention annoying. Conferring celebrity status on a few, while it may stoke the daydreams of some children on playgrounds, does little to ennoble the citizenry. On the contrary, the glaring spotlight we focus on sports "heroes" only breeds confusion in a culture that is already a moral morass.
Once a worshipper at the altar of sports, and still ardent about athletic competition, I can’t help but see sports at all levels groaning under the weight of unchecked hype, greed and attention. From Little League dads apoplectic over a bad call to preferential treatment for the high school quarterback to the public financing of new stadiums with more luxury boxes and fewer affordable seats, we’re perpetuating an attitude that denudes the game of its soul and makes sport and athletic success into crass commodities.
Pass me the remote. Tele-Tubbies sounds pretty good right about now.
Thomas J. McCarthy