I’m not going to do a rehash. If you don’t know what has unfolded over the past few days involving Notre Dame linebacker and 2012 Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o, go Google it. Come back later.
Assuming you do know what happened, here’s my one-sentence reaction: This is everything wrong with sports media coverage, and its place in our society today, in microcosm. I think a lot of people feel that way. I doubt most feel that way for the same reasons that I do.
You see, I’m not upset that Sports Illustrated, ESPN and a half-dozen other reputable outlets allowed themselves to be taken in by Te’o, or whoever had Te’o so profoundly flummoxed, as the case may be. At least, I’m not primarily upset about that.
I’m upset that this was ever the story. I’m upset that these outlets all latched so tightly onto this particular narrative, and that it became such a key part of Notre Dame’s seasonal narrative. I’m frustrated by sports media’s continued fixation on human-interest and/or origin stories that, even when true, feel contrived and canned.
When was the last time you read a Sports Illustrated profile and came away thinking, “That was cool. That was fundamentally different from other stories about other people I have read in other recent issues, not in personal particulars but in actual content.”? It has to have been a while. Because of late, everything SI does – and most of what The New York Times’ sports page does, and most of what ESPN does – is like this. They trivialize what actually happens on the fields of play, on the premise that who these people are is more important to us as consumers of this product. They give us whatever heart-warming or -wrenching story they have, because their goal is to engender emotional investment, and because it’s much easier to write flowingly and at length about these things than about the simple competitions they claim to cover.
I hope I’m clear here: I DO think sport has an obligation to edify the communities that invest in it, and that if we consume sports purely for wins and losses, for fandom, for entertainment, something is horribly wrong. After all, this is a heavily subsidized industry. Public money flows to these teams and leagues and players. Huge slices of the country invest time and/or discretionary income in this pursuit. Sports had better matter, or else we have a serious problem on our hands.
Here’s the thing: these personal interest pieces don’t make sports matter. They’re frequently vapid, or corny, or (as in this case) false. They don’t encourage a nuanced and balanced approach to life. They don’t inform any particular value set, other than a few basic things (charity is a universal good; perseverance in the face of adversity will be rewarded and is crucial to living well; love conquers all) that are better taught by other institutions anyway, and that very few people struggle to grasp in the first place. If Te’o isn’t proof enough that the people who generate these stories are ill-suited to role model treatment, Lance Armstrong, Pete Rose, Michael Jordan, Brett Favre, Sammy Sosa, Kirby Puckett and a dozen others should be.
Sports don’t matter because of which individuals play them. Sports matter because they matter. Baseball is an everyday game. It is so heavily influenced by randomness that the best teams win maybe five of each eight games, and the worst win three of eight. Baseball was one of the first institutions in American society to integrate racially, and folks, I love Jackie Robinson, but it wasn’t just Jackie Robinson, or Branch Rickey. It was baseball.
Baseball is a game of intermittent safety, but one in which ultimate success is rare and elusive. Progress in football, as in life, comes in fits and starts. Basketball is frenetic; scoring a basket doesn’t lessen your need to keep moving, keep chasing another basket, keep preventing baskets by your opponent. Sports matter when they help those who play and/or watch them understand something true and important about life, and when those people are able to use that new insight to improve themselves.
I don’t look at a diamond and see stats or robots. If these games weren’t played by humans, we would have no interest. Watching them play IS an exercise in human interest. It’s okay to care about the competitors as people, but the importance of their performance is not and can not be dependent upon any personal detail about them.
Sports speak to some people, but not to others. That’s okay. It frustrates me when ESPN lunges after things they think will draw in more and more people, when a lot of those people won’t get anything out of actually paying attention to the contests ESPN covers. Fine, they’re a business, so they run on ratings and popularity. I can’t and won’t fault them. But when genuine sports fans buy into their constant histrionics about off-field matters, something is wrong.
There’s joy in taking in sports. There’s a degree of interpersonal interaction somewhat absent elsewhere in modern society. There’s also a lot to learn, ethically and philosophically and pedagogically, from the way the games are designed and played, and from who plays them.
I want sports to be good for the United States. That probably means embracing the fact that a lot of people take more instruction from movies or music or art or whatever than they take from sports. It probably will never happen. But on an individual level, I hope that when I write (and notice, it will hardly ever be about which family member of the hottest new star recently died), I can show you a new way to think about or appreciate baseball, such that you will find it at least engaging or intellectually interesting, and at most instructive or provocative. Please read guys like Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus, Joe Sheehan, Rany Jazayerli, Bill James and Rob Neyer, not the guys who will keep pumping Te’o Lite down your throat every week. You’ll save yourself repetition, and find that following sports will bear more fruit in your life.Next post: On Justin Upton, and Anchoring Bias, and the Chicago Cubs
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