Stereotypical City Newspaper readers don't open the paper to read about sports. They sit in coffeehouses debating the world's injustices while ignoring the NBA or Stanley Cup Finals, even the NFL training camps that get started next month. They might not even know what sports I'm talking about.
But I don't blame them. I often wonder what it is about sports that captivates people, especially when many of the stories are recycled.
During the Summer Olympic Games, hundreds of athletes will overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams. Those stories will be pumped our way at the volume and frequency of wartime propaganda. They're not bad stories, but they're everywhere. By searching hard enough, you'll find that nearly everyone endured some hardship to get somewhere.
Case in point: I recently underwent non-cancerous scrotal surgery. And, yet, I'm writing this piece right now. Just call me Lance Armstrong.
Sports are cliché. If you yearn for originality, they're not going to appeal to you. Sports are about the comforts of familiarity. Mention the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs and many people immediately have a context to understand the decades of frustration those teams share.
Sports are like pro wrestling. The games have a few built-in storylines people can easily digest --- storylines as basic as "boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back."
Why do sports fans find that so compelling? I remember the days I'd sit and write in the Bills' press box nine hours after a 1 p.m. game and wonder how many more years I'd be doing that. The storylines were repeating themselves after just five seasons. I questioned why fans never got bored. As it turned out, I didn't cover the Bills much longer. In some ways I was relieved. Interviewing coaches, players, and team administrators isn't exactly the same as interviewing Confucius.
Author Paul Gallico, a New York Daily News sportswriter in the '20s and '30s, has said the country's sports fascination began after World War I. Americans were giddy because they felt they just "saved the world for democracy" and there were no immediate problems.
As Gallico told Jerome Holtzman in No Cheering in the Press Box, "You could let yourself go on sports. A heavyweight championship fight, the build-up, was tremendous. It was like the Israeli-Arab war, the way one approached it. Your side and their side. The goodies and the baddies. Whether it was a ball game, or boxing title, or a tennis or golf match, there was this built-in conflict and struggle, and we were witnesses to these struggles."
When American tennis player Helen Wills faced Suzanne Lenglen in a 1926 match, Gallico said "you would have thought that the world was coming to an end if our fine American girl got licked by this dreadful frog, this awful Frenchwoman. That's stupid when you look at it now, but in those days it was all played that way for high drama. You try that today, and you'd be laughed out of the newspaper office."
I only disagree with that last line. Holtzman recorded the interview in 1973. Perhaps then, editors might have laughed sportswriters out of the office. Today, thanks largely to ESPN, sports are portrayed exactly that way. Shows such as SportsCentury and SportsCenter regularly overstate the games' importance, lending them the significance of the war in Iraq.
Incidentally, Wills lost that match to the dreadful frog. The world, surprisingly, survived.
I recently flew back from San Francisco next to veteran Phoenix labor lawyer Robert Deeny. Deeny represents companies in negotiations with trade unions. It's his business to know about American attitudes so he can negotiate pacts that, in theory, appeal to both sides.
I lamented that people generally seem to care more about sports than they do about issues that actually impact their lives. They believe in sports so much they even feel they control the outcome of games if they cheer a little louder in the stadium. They believe they have more control over the Bills than they do over the government that's supposed to represent them.
Deeny referenced the old Karl Marx line, religion is the opium of the people. He suggested changing "religion" to "sports" to understand where America is today.
Sports teams have ingeniously convinced us we have control over outcomes. Yes, a fan might feel helpless when it's obvious Ricky Williams is having a career day and won't be stopped. But, at the same time, many Dolphins fans think they're actually doing something to help Williams run. Government, on the other hand, has somehow convinced us we have no control over anything. So I propose we encourage civic participation at every public meeting with sexy cheerleaders, booze, burgers, legislative gambling lines, and easy-to-read box scores with stats detailing legislative outcomes.
That should make mundane things just as compelling as Bills vs. Dolphins. And then stereotypical City Newspaper readers will have a whole new group of people to debate.