As I started writing an initial draft of this introduction to TomDispatch jock culture correspondent Robert Lipsyte's piece on this weekend's Super Bowl, I put down the Miami Dolphins as one of the teams playing. (No, you dope, it's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers!) This tells me everything I need to know about sports and me in 2021 and, believe me, it couldn't be stranger.
From childhood, I've been a sports fan the Brooklyn Dodgers (then the Mets), the New York Football Giants, in my later years the Knicks as well. As a grown-up, in the morning, after a quick glance at the headlines, I would usually start the newspaper day with the sports pages and would always watch the Super Bowl, no matter who was in it, with the same friends in a modest party atmosphere. Not this year. Admittedly, the friends won't be there because we don't all have our vaccinations yet, but even alone I won't be watching and it's not a protest of any kind, nothing like that. I just know already that I won't turn it on, since I haven't turned on a game of anything in the last year. It's the rare day when I even glance at the sports pages anymore. Somehow, in the pandemic (and Trumpian) moment, sports and the fascination with it that came right out of childhood is gone. Poof! Up in smoke, so to speak.
And I think former New York Times sports columnist Lipsyte, author most recently of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, can explain why that's so, not just for me, I suspect, but for so many of us. Tom
Take Me Out to the Capitol"Whoops, I Mean the Ballpark
The Super Bowl Ends the Most Toxic Season Ever
Overwhelmed by the intertwined plagues of Covid-19 and Trumpism, sports didn't stand a chance in 2020. No wonder I'm weirded out by the strange, metaphorical moments of that last disastrous year and the first days of this one. To mention just three among so many: Dr. Anthony Fauci's errant pitch on opening day of the Major League Baseball season; Ben and Jerry's announcement of its newest ice cream flavor, Colin Kaepernick's Changing the Whirled; and President Trump's awarding of the Medal of Freedom to three pro golfers the day after his own all too "proud" team stormed the Capitol.
Much of sports was crammed not only into bubbles of physical isolation but of intense scrutiny that led to the inevitable certainty that sports still does matter (though far less than it did before the reign of Trump) but also that something is truly the matter with sports. The greedy, entitled manner in which most of its overseers, college and pro, responded to the dangers of the virus illustrated vividly their commercial priorities. Profitable games uber alles. It also mirrored Trump's unmasked attitude toward the citizenry he had sworn to protect, especially the 450,000 virus victims he helped to kill.
And now, as the National Football League season ends with the Super Bowl, that annual spectacle celebrating socialism for billionaires and patriotism for poor people, it's hard not to wonder whether sports, at least as we've known it, can survive exposure not just to the coronavirus but to Trumpism Lite.
The Three Promises
Like democracy, sports has been up for grabs ever since the big three promises offered by its corporate version real live amusement, a moral crucible for exhibiting individual models of behavior, and a sense of belonging (that is, fandom) disappeared or were co-opted just when we needed them most.
Having spent the last 64 years as a reporter and sports columnist, mostly covering jock culture's relationship to the larger society, none of this surprised me. (I expected no less once I grasped the nature of the pandemics of both Trumpism and the coronavirus.) What did, however, sadden me was the diminishment of sports at its brightest: the power to enrich young lives, bring health to older ones, inspire, and entertain. No such luck in the Covid-19 season.
At its darkest, of course, sports have always fueled caste divisions, sexism, and racism, reckless cheating, and the kind of bullying domination that can be found from schoolyards to the online universe to global politics. While Donald Trump may have been the quintessential jock culture president (and bully), his malpractice certainly came out of an old playbook.
In 1938, the year I was born, for instance, one of the preeminent sportswriters of his moment, Paul Gallico, published a valedictory book, A Farewell to Sport, before graduating to the higher pop literary leagues by writing, among other works, The Poseidon Adventure. Gallico's lofty musings on Blacks, women, Jews, and deplorables in A Farewell to Sport were not only conventional for his time but sadly enough still resonate in today's Trumpian world.
What I learned as a teenager from his book included such gems of Jock Culture as: "like all people who spring from what we call low origins, [Babe] Ruth never had any inhibitions"; Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias became one of the greatest athletes of the century "simply because she would not or could not compete with women at their own best game man-snatching. It was an escape, a compensation"; and the reason basketball "appeals to the Hebrew" is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart aleckness." Gallico's racial observations that the success of Black boxers could be attributed to their thick skulls, for instance were no less stupid and bigoted.
The struggle against such sensibilities in sports has made a real difference in recent years as an impressive new wave of activism emerged among athletes, which, in turn, spawned "woke" journalists, fans, and even management. That's why sports wasn't completely overwhelmed by the despicable values of our recent president. But it didn't escape the damage caused when those three big corporate promises were essentially replaced (however temporarily we don't yet know) by a new "sport" that, along with the coronavirus, would dominate the news: Trumpism.
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