Are sports art?

Wednesday, June 10, 2020 - 5:16pm

Pop culture would have us believe that the Venn diagram between sports fans and art nerds is more or less two separate circles. As a humble representative of the tiny sliver in the middle, I want to introduce my friends on both sides to the world of their culturally prescribed adversary. There are some similarities between the two that few would expect to find — similarities that, I argue, allow us to view sport as art. Let’s set the scene. Our protagonist is NFL analyst Adam Schefter, who stakes his reputation on his straight-shooter, no-nonsense reporting. Schefter’s Twitter feed is the Associated Press of the NFL world; if he says something, it’s true. A few weeks ago, Schefter put on his best suit, set up his webcam in front of his well-stocked bookcase, and joined an ESPN broadcast held over Zoom, complete with all the aggressive rock music, flashy graphics and artificial urgency we’ve come to expect from the network. The occasion? The announcement of the order in which next season’s NFL games will be played in.

One might think the order of games isn’t particularly interesting news, perhaps worthy of a short segment highlighting interesting matchups, but ESPN had other thoughts. They instead hosted a three-hour show breaking down each team’s schedule with such pressing commentary as “X team won’t be able to handle so many games in cold cities in December,” or, “Y rookie quarterback will be demoralized by difficult opponents early on.” This was stated with a baffling level of confidence, despite being months away from a season whose fate is already uncertain due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Schefter desperately tries to do the impossible and fill the home stretch of this painfully long production with anything resembling objective analysis.

How did Schefter find himself in this position? The ESPN show is an extreme example of the increasing role of narrative in professional sports. A three-hour show for a schedule release is a bit excessive, but the stories that the media constructs around games are a large part of what makes them so exciting. Each NFL team plays 16 regular-season games. Though the average broadcast is over three hours long, the ball is only in play for about 11 minutes per game. To make these short bursts of action feel consequential, the media sets up elaborate storylines in the hours and days leading up to games. They do so by creating characters out of athletes and framing games such that they follow a traditional narrative arc, putting their characters in situations where they have to overcome obstacles larger than the game itself. The week one matchup between the Saints and the Buccaneers, for instance, becomes not just a potentially good game, but a battle between veterans Drew Brees and Tom Brady to solidify their legacy as the best quarterback in the league and to push the limits of how many years they can play at a high level. Analysts will routinely praise the determination and perseverance required of Brees and Brady to play through their 40s. 

Each play thus carries far more weight, as it’s not just the game on the line, but also a whole host of abstract values and principles. In this light, analysts can be considered analogous to storytellers — more so than regular journalists, as they add far more narrative to their subject matter than a reporter covering a “real” news story. That is to say, the difference between the actual events and their portrayal in the media is greater in sports journalism than it is in other branches of journalism. Athletes are, in a sense, analogous to performers, coaches to directors, referees to stage managers and so on. The result is a coherent “show” so to speak, a circular system consisting of the game and the media’s commentary about the game. The tendency to narrativize games can be found in other sports, but the NFL and its media apparatus have used these techniques the most. It pays off for them too. The NFL has for some time been the most watched sports league in the United States. One might argue that this phenomenon is just a way to sensationalize the game and increase profits. Though I’m inclined to agree, the narrativization of sport has nonetheless created the conditions by which sport can — and I think should — be considered art.

Coinciding with the rise of narrativized sport, we’ve seen athletes and sports journalists broaden the scope of the issues that they’re willing to discuss. Whereas sports media in the past generally had a narrow focus on the sport itself (e.g. play-by-play recaps, statistics, trade and contract negotiations, etc.), it now doesn’t shy away players’ personalities, drama and even broader social issues that don’t directly relate to sports. This is mostly an organic process, without any motivation outside of generating more content for its own sake. People in sports media are probably not intentionally making sport like art, and if they are, it is only for the practical concern of making games more entertaining. There are, however, real stakes to these conversations.

Sports media, especially NFL media, often uses rhetoric that praises athletes’ toughness, determination, grit and other similar attributes. This traditionally masculine rhetoric is often channelled to destructive ends. Athletes’ toughness is used to justify and downplay the serious health risks associated with playing a contact sport like football. Countless football players have suffered from CTE, and though the NFL has made some small gestures to player safety, the problem remains largely unaddressed. Violence by athletes is routinely swept under the rug. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, for example, was accused of sexual assault twice in 2010. One case ended in a settlement and another was dropped by the accuser while stressing that she was not recanting her story. Roethlisberger received only a six-week suspension and no jail time, and he still plays for the Steelers to this day. These are just a few of the ways that the cultural and political conflicts of the world are reflected in sport. These issues pertain mostly to football, but there are undoubtedly problems that other sports leagues need to reckon with, like the racism against black athletes in European soccer leagues, or the pay gap between male and female athletes. Most players and sports journalists see themselves as passive observers of these issues with no recourse in the face of the large enterprises that are the sports leagues and news organizations. This serves to only strengthen the apathy of people involved in the sports world, preventing any grassroots corrective measures outside of the minor reforms from above. 

One attempt to solve a serious issue in the context of sport is Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest against police brutality in 2016. Many argued that Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem was somehow disrespecting the flag and the troops, despite getting the suggestion to kneel from a military veteran. These arguments were clearly weak at the time, and are even more ridiculous in the context of the ongoing protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, yet they still persist. Saints quarterback Drew Brees came under fire just last week for saying that he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America” in a conversation about the current protests and Kaepernick’s anthem protest. This prompted impassioned responses from journalists, athletes and even Brees’s own teammates condemning his stance. Conversations like these could have never taken in sports media of the past. Coverage of player personalities and the drama of the day has unintentionally paved the way for the serious conversations athletes and sports journalists are increasingly having. Kaepernick and his supporters had a sense of pride in themselves and their values that outweighed the pressure from their institutions to conform to the status quo. We can see that the increasingly artistic qualities of sport have, in a limited sense, enabled athletes to be more outspoken and to feel a sense of agency over themselves. Does this mean that sports are, in fact, art?

I won’t try to identify an essential quality to art and shoehorn sport into a vague definition or sneak it in on an obscure technicality (though vague, obscure and technical rules are certainly on brand for football). Instead I’ll go the other direction, and suggest that there is value in viewing sport as art regardless of whether it fits some prescriptive definition. Contentious debates around what is and isn’t art are common among art critics. Art critic David Novitz discusses this issue in his article “Disputes about Art,” published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. He focuses on pieces that are seen as test cases in the art world, pieces that incite particularly heated debate, like “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, an ordinary porcelain urinal submitted for an exhibition with the intent of mocking the superficiality of European high culture post-WWI. When it comes to more subversive or unconventional pieces, the debates around their validity as art have less to do with particular ways we decide to define art (e.g. essentialism, functionalism, artist’s intent, etc.), but rather are “part of a larger dispute about whose values and beliefs are worthy of serious attention, and whose cultural interests should prevail in a given society,” according to Novitz. 

Novitz suggests that by considering an object art, we grant it a certain kind of privilege. The status of art functions as a legitimizing force that works in two directions. On one hand, traditional and established pieces and art forms reinforce the existing set of cultural values. On the other, subversive pieces and forms that are successful in attaining artistic status can grant legitimacy to ideas and values that have previously been marginalized. People who make or talk about art are generally aware of this tension in one way or another. It is common among artists to have conversations about how a given piece subverts or conforms to standards, and what implications that has on art and culture. Artists themselves are often keenly aware of the cultural work that their art performs and make this an explicit focus of their pieces. 

A common refrain from Kaepernick’s critics is that politics don’t belong in sports, that sports are a place where we can relax and tune out from the world. This attitude is clearly harmful to people like Kaepernick who are politically active and don’t have much power compared to the NFL as an institution. It prevents people involved in sports from being critical of either sports institutions or broader society. Narrativized sport has empowered athletes and journalists to be vocal about these issues and many have taken advantage of it. This is where art comes in: If athletes and journalists internalize their roles as performers and storytellers respectively, they can claim a certain agency. In the same way artists’ values are reflected in their art, what if athletes and journalists saw themselves as reflecting the same values in their dedication to their sport as they do when speaking out against injustice? In the same way an artist who sells out, panders or otherwise compromises their values isn’t taken seriously, what if an athlete or journalist who maintains the integrity of their values both on and off the field is commended? An artistic approach to sport humanizes athletes by encouraging them to untether themselves from the interests of those in power. It allows those involved in sport to be active participants in shaping the structures that they are a part of, so that fixing issues like CTE and violence among athletes becomes within the scope of the average athlete or journalist and not left at the mercy of faceless institutions. This reorientation will have to come from the ground up. Athletes and journalists must be willing to break from the views of owners, leagues and news networks and be vocal critics of the world around them. Perhaps if we consider sports art — and athletes and journalists artists — they can grant themselves a sense of legitimacy that hasn’t been afforded to them by the “keep politics out of sports” crowd. At the very least we can recognize that sports’ increasing similarities to art has empowered athletes and journalists. And if an artistic ethos can be beneficial to those in the sports world, maybe the rest of us can see where in our own lives we can be artists, where we can see ourselves as legitimate and empowered actors.