April 19, 2006

Debunking Pro Sports Illusions

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It’s kind of strange to have a real emotional investment in a fake hero. Or to care about someone that couldn’t care less about you. Or to believe in an illusion. And from these facts, I’ve slowly begun to appreciate that it’s completely ridiculous to care deeply about professional sports.

I think most people have, at times, thought that a lot of pro athletes were overpaid or selfish. And of course, there are the problems with things like steroids. And it’s also a common complaint that the big leagues can be overly commercial.

That’s the reality of pro sports. But my problem with sports-entertainment complex is really more than just those frequent criticisms. The real problem is that the pro sporting world is all an illusion – an illusion comprised of so much false imagery, cliché and left-over emotions. It’s an illusion supported by the inane, recycled commentary of ex-athletes on ESPN and by our Hollywood-like depiction of current stars.

And it’s not just pro sports – it’s big-time college athletics, too. It’s really anywhere that our celebrity-obsessed, image-based, nauseating culture of empty adulation and false profundity takes center stage.

You remember that scene in Robert De Niro’s underrated movie, A Bronx Tale? It’s the scene where mobster Sonny tells a working class C that “Mickey Mantle don’t care about you,” and that Mickey Mantle won’t pay C’s rent so why should C care about Mickey Mantle.

And he was right about that. And yet how many people believed in Mantle once – cared about him with unrequited devotion – just because he was the best hitter around? How many people had already bought into the pro sports illusion?

Now some people would say that we invest our emotions in sports because – as the clichés go – we see reflections of our hopes and dreams in the efforts of athletic heroes. In some way, maybe we see our own lives being lived out, metaphorically, on the field. Maybe sports can give us something to believe in.

And that all may be true. But what are we really believing in? Are we believing in the reality of big-time sports – in the ultimate emptiness of an entertainment business? Or are we just believing in the fantasy?

Or maybe just a copy of a fantasy that never really existed in the first place. Think about those postmodern, retro ballparks that evoke false images of a wonderful past. It’s as if we’re trying to recreate a world that never actually existed at all.

So maybe we should look for something more real. I hope what really matters in sports are the small, authentic, true moments. The things that won’t get discussed on Around the Horn. The things that won’t get paint-by-numbers, pseudo-ironic commentaries on ESPN.com’s Page 2. The kind of things that might not even involve teams or scores or batting averages.

It’s not Bill Simmons discussing the endless nuances of the NBA Most Valuable Player race. It’s not about creating Top-10 lists of anything. It’s not about believing in a bunch of pro athletes who could care less about you.

What should matter in sports are real authentic experiences that are not filtered by the media, or cropped into by ESPN highlights or even promoted by people like myself writing in a newspaper.

It could be the day you win something like the intramural floor hockey playoffs. It might be the time you learn how to snowboard, or the day you surf better than you ever have before. Or it might just be the day you watch some minor college game with only a few people in the stands – and yet sense that the athletes there care about what they’re doing, regardless.

Because, yes, on occasion, you can truly find a kind of meaning and authenticity in college sports. But it probably won’t be at a BCS bowl game.

It could be like last month, when junior David Pell of the track team cleared the important seven-foot mark in the high jump. His accomplishment will not be on ESPN or debated throughout the nation. But for Pell and his teammates, his achievement has real significance. You know it when you hear a fellow track athlete describe Pell’s efforts as inspiring, or when you realize the amount of honest hard work that led to his success.

But there is no one looking for an autograph. You won’t find any TV fans living vicariously through an athlete’s dream. There is a just a simple accomplishment, without pretense.

Perhaps we should all look for our own small, meaningful version of that – instead of believing in the fake imagery, the empty bright lights, and the famous athletes we will never really know at all.

Ted Nyman is a Sun Senior Editor. Fast Times will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Ted Nyman