30 December 2019

Millennial Ambivalence: Sports

Sports have never been more fully integrated with the wider entertainment industry than they are right now, and neither have I, but I find, as I always did before, that sports fandom is the exception among artists and entertainers, not the rule. I for one quickly lost all interest in TV and movies as an adult, but sports have held on to an irreducible sliver of my attention where most all other artifacts of "entertainment" proper have failed. For market research purposes I suppose this puts me in an ever smaller sub-minority of entertainment consumers; truthfully, though, in my world sports are less entertainment than art, and this puts me quite at odds not only with the lowest common denominator but with virtually everything sports have become. Allow me to unpack that confession just a bit.

Like the rest of the entertainment landscape, the sports world has become increasingly ruled by "off-the-field" matters, both for better and for worse I think. Social media has given the athletes themselves greater agency in this new reality, but it is a reality which has been in the works for a while, since long before Twitter. If the proverbial aliens landed, they might conclude from the sports media's overwrought examination of every tabloid-worthy detail of the athletes' off-the-field lives that the games themselves must not be all that interesting to spectators, that the real action was in the human drama. Certainly most all sports media executives seem to have concluded this. This invites much the same question as do efforts to "humanize" orchestra musicians by shifting the focus off-the-field: Who TF cares about human dramas that are a dime a dozen? Is this really what the audience wants? Is it what the suits only think they want? Is this supposed to manufacture crossover appeal to other entertainment consumers by endowing sports with a tabloid sector? I don't know the answer, but I hate all of the choices.

On the plus side, I do think this Total Access has been constructive in greatly inhibiting the suspension of disbelief on which all entertainment makes its nut. People feel differently about the concussion issue in football, for example, but however they feel they are not allowed to ignore it, and that is, if not a happy condition in which to find ourselves, then at least the necessary first step toward happier times. This is just one of what seems like a dozen or so utterly delectable sports world nuggets for the dime store metaphysician to savor: everything contains the seeds of its own destruction, and sports fans alive today are getting to watch a generous handful of those seeds sprout and run amok both on and off the field. The money finally got so huge that the full weight of the human intellect was brought to bear on these primitive games, such that rule changes are now endemic to pro sports as the leagues desperately try to plug procedural holes that almost no one was even aware of 20 years ago. Social media has enabled smart athletes to make even more money on themselves, and dumb ones to find new and better ways to piss it away with each tweet. Teams are hardly identifiable by their uniforms anymore, because they have a dozen alternate uniforms and must keep them all in game circulation so as to keep all of them flying off the shelves at once.

Indeed, even I find myself perversely enjoying the spectacle of all of this and occasionally, as today, attempting to unpack it as if it mattered as deeply to me as music does, as deeply as in my weaker moments the outcome of a Big Game seems like it does. Ultimately though, both music and sports are things to do, not just things to contemplate. I consider the receptive end of the transaction to be active rather than passive in both cases, especially when done in person: crowds affect the outcomes of both concerts and matches in very similar ways, excepting of course (usually) the absence of zero-sum winning and losing in musical performance. I'm not really sure how knowing that the pitcher and the hitter have recently had a Twitter spat, or that the oboist has three children and two French bulldogs at home, figures into this equation for most people. I know that for me these are sideshows without which I would still enjoy listening to music and watching sports, and probably enjoy it more that I currently do precisely for not having to hear about all of this. Most every person-to-person interaction I can recall indicates that I am indeed part of a silent majority on this point; the towering piece of anecdotal evidence to the contrary is the wider thrust of all formal art and entertainment production towards tabloidism, oversharing, and backstory. I consume a certain amount of this residually, because I don't have a choice. I am not happy about it.

The process which was set in motion the first time a local pro sports team imported players from a neighboring town has now found its apotheosis in the holier-than-thous who "root for players, not for teams." Neither M.O. is any more or less rational than the other, but a player-centered fandom certainly represents the ultimate triumph of backstory over forestory. Formally at least, sports teams still win or lose "as a team," as the saying would have it, not as individuals or brands. So far this is one rule which has not been changed with an eye toward wider appeal; instead it is concertedly elided by an ever-growing sideshow of player-focused media content, most especially fantasy sports. I have had to resort to speaking of "material football" around my fantasy-playing co-workers in order to differentiate my interest in the games from theirs. Ironically, much like the nametags we wear at work, this twisted rooting interest doesn't actually allow fans to get to know the players as individuals but rather enables them to bypass this altogether to arrive at a false intimacy; instead of bringing fans closer to players, players literally become numbers, interchangeable chess pieces without human qualities, just as the team owners are so often accused of viewing them. (NFL = "not for long.") This is hardly more rational than rooting for the team from the place you grew up. What it is is more permissive of self-styling. When I was a teenager, self-stylers were known as "frontrunners" and roundly mocked. This was not that long ago.

There are exceedingly few players who are equally valuable in fantasy and material football, except perhaps for those who are equally worthless because they don't play at all. There are just as few whose aesthetic qualities and winning qualities are commensurate. Peyton Manning has been posited as among the most aesthetically unappealing great players. Mike Trout is not exactly unappealing, but his style lags well behind his substance. Kemba Walker just looks good in Celtics green and is, incidentally, also performing quite well in it. It just had to be a city like San Diego that brought Wil Myers and Manny Machado together, though some observers think the Padres are, whether because or in spite of this, finally headed for better times. Indeed, since I can walk to Dodger Stadium, and because the Dodgers and Padres play there 9 or 10 times a year, this is bound to be something I think twice about the next time I have a chance to go. There is a remote corner of my brain where there lives a standard-issue entertainment consumer, who is rationalistically put off by the idea of consuming the same entertainment product more than a couple of times. Happily for me, the artist who has the run of the remaining neural pathways is there to remind me that players evolve, stakes change, crowds affect outcomes, and that baseball is, like all great sports, just quirky and high-variance enough in its formal dynamics and material realities alike so as to preclude any two games between the same teams in the same building at the same time of day being remotely the same experience. High art can compete with that; tabloid journalism can't.

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