II went to my first Michigan hockey game this weekend. “Yost is the greatest place in the world,” the friend I went with told me. “I love it.”
I loved it too. And I wasn”t surprised. In my last column I wrote about how people”s sports loyalties are often, on some level, arbitrary. We don”t usually know the players. We may live in the right city or go to the right school, but beyond that, there isn”t much else that makes us decide which color jerseys we”ll be cheering for and which color jerseys we”ll be swearing at. But, despite the reality that these sort of decisions are grounded in chance, that doesn”t necessarily invalidate them. At Yost on Saturday night, I wanted Michigan to win. I liked it when the crowd told the other team”s players that they were ugly.
It”s a sad thing that sports had to be the institution that I wanted to make an example of. Athletics push the human body to the extremes. They provide entertainment and beyond that a culture that everyone feels like he or she can have some part in. Sports bring people together. Sports, indeed, are a good thing.
What scares me, however, is not the athletics or the culture that athletics as a cultural institution entails. What is disconcerting is what that culture tells us about what we”re not paying attention to.
These columns are not about sports. They are about the media and what the media tells us to pay attention to. The average sports fan on the street, as I wrote in my last column, has an unbelievable amount of sports esoterica that can be tapped in an instant. Batting averages, yards rushed, dates, numbers and names it”s all there, processed, organized and analyzed.
And the American media loves it. It loves that there is some appeal that sports have to the primal in all of us. Last night ESPN”s first movie debuted, “A Season on the Brink,” the story of the infamous 1985-86 Hoosiers basketball season (infamous in no small part due to a conference championship loss to Michigan) and the legendary coach Bobby Knight. The subject material of this movie holds an enormous amount of interest for millions of people.
But while we”re counting Knight”s expletives, we”re inevitably missing out on something else going on in the world. We”re diverted. And this is what it comes down to: Sports as the great diversion. Nothing wrong with sports, per se, but something wrong with what it seems to mutually exclude.
Noam Chomsky, in a talk at the Z Media Institute in June of 1997, made my point much better than I can (and he did it in one paragraph):
“The real mass media are basically trying to divert people. Let them do something else, but don”t bother us (us being the people who run the show). Let them get interested in professional sports for example. Let everybody be crazed about professional sports or sex scandals or the personalities and their problems or something like that. Anything, as long as it isn”t serious. Of course, the serious stuff is for the big guys. “We” take care of that.”
So while we”re counting touchdowns or tabulating field goal percentages because the “agenda-setting” media (The New York Times, and what grows exponentially scarier, Fox News) tells us that is what we should be doing, someone else is doing what we could just as easily be doing with all of that natural intelligence that we”ve got. They”re paying attention to the world.
Call it conspiracy-theorist. It wouldn”t be the first time that Chomsky heard that epithet hurled in his direction. But he makes a strong point: We”re diverted. We want Olympics on the front page of the Times. We want sports. We want scandals. We want sports scandals!
Perhaps no other example is more compelling than this year”s Super Bowl. The event illustrated Chomsky”s point perfectly a point that he also makes in the Canadian-produced Chomsky-biographical film “Manufacturing Consent:” “(Sports) is a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements, in fact it”s training in irrational jingoism That”s why energy is devoted to supporting them and advertisers are willing to pay for them.
In the case of the Super Bowl, it was the American government. It was ads that told us that if we did drugs we support terrorism. At no other time in this nation”s (or the Super Bowl”s) history would that sort of government advertising had such a chance to work. They fund the diversion (sports) and manipulate our energy and submission to that diversion with ads that, taken out of context and examined rationally, are ridiculous and base manipulations of the Sept. 11 tragedies.
Sports themselves are not the problem (unless you”re a soccer dad in Cambridge, Mass a whole different story). How they”re used to manipulate us and what we sacrifice in our unapologetic devotion to what is, unmistakably a diversion, is what should make us reevaluate not necessarily the athletics of a culture, but a culture of athletics.
This was the second of a two-part series. Johanna Hanink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.