Saturday, July 7, 2012

The limits of sports

I've added another stadium to my "collection" of venues in which I've indulged my weakness for baseball.  Nationals Park is a pleasant enough place to watch a game, though the food is ludicrously expensive even in relation to other big league parks, and even though last night's game was played in a soupy miasma of heat and humidity.  The home team, fresh off a sweep of a very good San Francisco Giants team in which they thoroughly torched some of the better pitchers in baseball, got beat by the woeful Colorado Rockies and a rookie pitcher (admittedly one of the top pitching prospects around, but still a rookie), even with ├╝ber-phenom Stephen Strasburg on the mound for Washington.

That kind of unpredictability is what's fun about sports, and baseball most particularly due to its relentless 162-game long march of a schedule.  Given enough opportunities, even the woeful teams will beat the wonderful teams on occasion -- not often, but just often enough to provoke the repeated use of the phrase "you never know" in describing the game.  Given a 5-0 deficit going into the bottom of the ninth inning, one would think there was no reason to hang around.  Still, when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman cranked one out to lead off the inning, a threatened mass exodus arrested itself, with fans congregating around the left-field plaza area straining for a look at the field, or at the large monitor installed near that plaza, just in case ... .  After all, the Nationals did put on a big late comeback just the night before, against a better team.  But on this night it was not to be, and in fact the Rockies held on for the 5-1 win.

Suspense without a script is part of the entertainment value of a good sporting contest.  Even if nothing happens, the sheer continual possibility of something happening has enough value and compelling interest to leave one feeling a little exhausted by its end.  One of the more compelling experiences I can recall was a high-school football game (I was in the marching band, natch) against a nearby rival, in which my team scored a very quick touchdown and missed the extra point, and nobody scored again -- a 6-0 final.  Yet, what might seem like a completely boring affair was anything but; long plays thwarted at the last, dramatic goal-line stands, dramatic interceptions when it seemed the other guys were about to score -- the sequence of desperate lows skyrocketing to giddy highs was an exquisite and exhilarating thrill ride.  I was worn out, and all I did was tromp around on the field and play a mellophone for ten minutes at halftime.

A good sporting contest can entertain, it can provide the kind of thrills that such a tense contest can provide (and if you aren't capable of getting this, you probably shouldn't snark about why people don't get the glory that is Shakespeare or Beethoven), and maybe on occasion it can be the occasion for life lessons on things like hope.  Still, there are things sports can't do, and there are things sports can do that the world would probably be better without.

Too easily sports becomes the venue for the uglier side of humanity to parade itself.  The recent Euro 2012 championships in soccer were the venue for some virulent hate speech by "fans" in Poland and Ukraine against certain players on the visiting teams, specifically those who [note: sarcasm ahead] committed the unforgivable crime of not being white.  The only thing more mind-bogglingly stupid than fans who riot destructively after their team loses a major championship such as the World Series or March Madness is fans who riot destructively after their team wins such a championship (yes, I'm looking at you, LexingtonKentucky), and yet both happen way too often.  The horror of the still-unfolding scandal at Penn State defies capturing in one sentence, but an inescapable part of the formula is the cultish admiration for a long-successful coach, and the resultant power that ends up in hands not divine enough to cope with it (hint: no human hands are divine enough to cope with that kind of power).  Beyond fan ugliness, player misbehavior is too easy to find in headlines, from players getting paid to injure other players in the NFL to a string of drunken accidents or drug arrests or sexual assault charges to which the popular capacity for outrage is somewhere between numb and outright resentful ... of those who would hold athletes accountable for their behavior.

Given such an ongoing record, why would we think that of all the bizarre things sports have the capacity to "heal" societal wounds or grief?  And yet, think back to those days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; how much talk did one hear about the capacity of baseball or football games to "heal" American society?  Um, no.  The late David Halberstam (a New Yorker, mind you) swatted that notion away like a cheap jump shot with these words, written a year after the attacks: "If, in the long run, you need sports to help you through a time of tragedy and to take your mind off a grimmer reality, then you are emotionally in so much trouble in not understanding what is real and what is fantasy that the prospects for your long-term emotional health are probably not very good." (From "Sports Can Distract, But They Don't Heal," published on ESPN.com on September 10, 2002, and reprinted in Everything They Had, a collection of Halberstam's writing on sports published in 2008.)


Halberstam did not dismiss the temporary boost such games can provide in that kind of situation, citing the Yankees' run to the World Series that year.  Even in that, though, the boost was thoroughly temporary (the Yankees didn't win the Series), and didn't take away any of the grief or tragedy the city or country was bound to experience.  And frankly, we'd be a deeply troubled and emotionally and intellectually impoverished country if it had.

One could even argue that baseball and football became complicit in the enforcement of a particular conformity of response to the events though their quick acquiescence to the exigencies of hand-wringing flag-waving; no time for grief anymore, gotta sing "God Bless America" in the seventh-inning stretch instead of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" so those terrorists know they didn't win -- and don't dare ask questions.  [Eleven years later, this persists to varying degrees in Major League Baseball, with most every park doing so on Sundays (civil religion, anybody?) and special occasions, and at least the Yankees doing so at every game, so that you're getting a double-dose of musical patriotism (since the national anthem is still sung at the beginning of every game as well).  Is there not some place where overkill begins?]

I enjoyed my ballgame last night (though I'm quite sure any further need for live baseball this season will be fulfilled quite nicely by the local minor-league squad), and I'll even admit that one of my great small fears going forward into this new unknown is the possibility to end up called to a church far away from any major- or minor-league ball.  Still, I know enough to know that when I got up this morning, there were still bookshelves awaiting moving and/or building; my denomination was still behaving badly at its biennial business meeting this week; Hebrew still starts Monday; and this area is still under an Excessive Heat Warning for today and tomorrow.  Nothing was healed, no problems were solved.  It was an evening's pleasant diversion, and one more step in a season of diverting intrigue and suspense.  Any "uniting" with a diverse crowd of others lasted only until that unsuccessful rally breathed its last.  Should the Nationals make a charge for a World Series title, it won't do anything for the city's crime rate (except, alas, for a possible riot-charged spike the night of the last game), or for the fact that its citizens have no voting representation in Congress.  The Saints, no matter how much rhetoric to the contrary, did not "heal" New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; that only happens when people put their energy and soul into rebuilding and restoring the city, and if some of those people happen to be members of the Saints like Drew Brees, good.  Sports can do many things.  Sports cannot do many things, and there are many things sports should not do.  One is always wise to keep those things in mind and to keep from confusing them in theory or in practice.

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