April 24, 2009

The ‘Other’ Opiate of The Masses

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I can’t imagine why anyone would get involved with sports journalism. Most aspiring journalists dream of crafting an investigative story to reveal some deep-seated corruption in government; most sports fans avoid writing altogether. Sports journalists apparently come from that dead zone of the Venn diagram between “aspiring journalists” and “sports fans.” It’s not always a rewarding job; athletes whine that they don’t get enough attention and non-athletes complain that they get too much — after all, why spend so much time dissecting the intricacies and storylines of sports, an industry that has been equated with religion as an “opiate for the masses,” at least according to a lecture by Prof. Issac Kramnick, government.
If sports are nothing but an opiate for the masses, a distraction from the grim realities of our maligned existence, then that makes sports journalists kind of like opium dealers. The scourge of civilized society, we wheel and deal bits of information to rabid sports fans (users), to keep them interested in — and addicted to — our product. Similar to drug dealers, we are successful because the feeling of satisfaction gained from the information we peddle is fleeting. Every high induced by a walk-off win is followed by a corresponding low from a heartbreaking loss or season-ending injury. And, just like drugs, consumers always want more. One win is never enough — it takes an entire season of winning, sometimes even a lifetime, to satiate a real addict.
Something about sports seems inherently superficial. In the middle of this oft-discussed financial crisis, we continue funneling our hard-earned, non-toxic assets into athletics. A deep-pocketed Yankee fan can pay as much as $2,625 for a seat in the new stadium, and a portion of every Cornell student’s tuition is converted into a clean uniform or new field turf for a Red athlete. No matter how shallow it seems, we continue to fund athletics at a time when the world clearly has bigger problems. This inconsistency can lead to one of two conclusions: our irrationality and insensitivity as humans, or a deeper value to sports that is overlooked by many people. I believe in the latter.
It may seem silly that the University of Kentucky will pay $31.65 million to new basketball coach John Calipari for a few extra wins each season. Those numbers in the win column, however, represent more than victories themselves — they are the glue that holds a community together, the Chinese finger traps binding two very different fans who would probably never cross paths outside of the bleachers at a game. Calipari’s salary is obviously an absurd sum of money, but it is impossible to put a price tag on the experiences that sports offer fans.
If the Sun sports department is nothing more than a narcotics ring, our product has definitely been shaped by the previous dealers. Old sports editors — Mix, Allie, Lance, Harrison and Josh — taught me the basics of sports reporting and imbued me with a passion for Cornell sports in particular, a gift which will extend long past my time on the Hill. Cory Bennett, last year’s sports editor and the best mentor I could ask for, taught me to always remember the human side of sports — the people behind the uniforms — and how carefully constructed words could ignite a passion in readers that is hard to spark through any other means. Meredith, Matt, Rahul and Alex are the pushers currently standing on the corner dealing our drug of choice and making me appear slightly more competent in a position for which I feel woefully overmatched.
Maybe sports are just opium for the masses. Maybe it is an indication of the devolution of our society that a man who swings a wooden bat makes $25 million a year, while a firefighter rakes in maybe $60,000 for saving lives every day on the job. Maybe people should find something more productive and permanent to invest their time into than watching bodies bash into each other on a gridiron.
But even if sports are nothing but another drug, I’ll take it. I’ll take the admittedly superficial satisfaction of a swished 3-pointer or the temporary thrill of a slapshot that finds its way to the back of the net. As a practical matter, I’ll take an hour of SportsCenter opium over an hour of watching stocks tumble on CNBC. In the (likely) words of 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps:
Pass the pipe, I’ll take a hit of that crazy stuff.