Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

A Harmless Obsession

In Long form, Soccer on August 3, 2011 at 10:58 am

Few weeks have been as depressing as the one that began July 4 for the general tone of media in this country. The nation was undergoing a debt crisis that ranks among the most serious economic threats in its history. In the past months, natural disasters had killed hundreds throughout the country, including floods and tornadoes that have destroyed countless communities. Abroad, a popular uprising in Syria has resulted in the deaths of thousands, while a civil war rages in Libya, both events that have profound impacts on the United States and its foreign policy. Indeed they are all still occurring.

And the country was riveted on Casey Anthony.

I work in a Washington, D.C. office which, like many across the news-obsessed city, blares CNN non-stop. For several days, on that channel, one would be hard-pressed to realize that there was a world outside of a courtroom in Florida, and the world that did exist beyond the narrow scope of those TV news cameras seemed disinterested in its own happenings. Twitter and Facebook were consumed with tweets and status updates reacting to the trial, while the networks interviewed breathless onlookers outside the courthouse who had traveled great distances and seemingly took great pleasure in emotionally involving themselves in the case.

The entire scene was sickening, driving home the most infuriating elements of American culture with a sledgehammer’s delicacy.

It also somewhat reaffirmed my interest and faith in sports.

I’ll jump back a little. I’ve been a huge sports fan since I was very young, entering into consciousness just as many of my favorite teams were fleeing from anything remotely resembling success.(i) But as I matured, and embarked on the origins of a career in sports journalism, I began to become more disillusioned. Driven by an insatiable appetite for information and an often insufferable sports media, American sports fans are consistently bombarded by a constant and raucous stream of news. It is unhealthy. Too often, the prolonged slump of Adam Dunn is treated as an intellectual quandary akin to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while scraps of blockbuster trade rumors are bartered about and protected like state secrets. And that’s not even to mention Derek Jeter’s quest for 3,000 hits, which, in the sport media calculus, seemed to rank somewhere between a papal coronation and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Sports is great entertainment, a release from the pressures of the work week and a passion that is unrivaled for many across the world. And it also has great power for social change, in many cases becoming inextricably linked, for better or worse, to popular causes and movements, be they Spanish dissent under the fascist rule of Franco, Jackie Robinson aiding race relations by breaking the color barrier, or a proxy for Catholic-Protestant violence in Glasgow. Sports teams and figures take on the roles and aspirations of the communities behind them, providing pride and catharsis, or agony. For these reasons—for the real-world impact they have on people’s lives—sports are important.

That importance does not extend to the minute dissection and dramatization of every transaction and performance. It’s the big picture that matters.

To be sure, it is the media that largely fuels this, as a prism for people’s interests. In America, with the internet and 24-hour news cycle, the press acts as a mass amplifier of what people want to hear. This is reflected in the increasing political polarization of the cable news networks, as well as the never-ending coverage of stories that do not remotely challenge viewers or readers to think in any way. As a prominent journalist said fairly recently (and forgive me, for I’m forgetting the name and paraphrasing), media has transitioned from giving people what they need, to giving them what they think they want.

This was driven home in the slop of lazy and sensationalist reporting surrounding the Casey Anthony trial, perhaps the most egregious example of media pandering to the wants of its readers instead of their needs. This was a story with no national significance of any kind, of a devastatingly tragic tale for all involved, yet it was treated by media and viewers alike as nothing more than a television soap opera. America forgot that these weren’t characters who abandoned their roles to their normal lives each evening; these were real people whose lives were torn apart and gawked at by millions. It was pure medievalism. The end result (ii) was simply nauseating.

Which is why it made me feel better about sports and America’s consumption of them. The media overhypes and overplays everything, distorting its nature and importance. But sports (iii) are a much more harmless and healthy area for this lack of context. Instead of ogling the tragic murder of a little girl for entertainment, I would much prefer America to kick back by stressing over Daisuke’s Matsuzaka’s inability to propel an object anywhere near the strike zone, or obsess over the unlikely perfection of Dirk Nowitski’s fadeaway.

I’m not sure what it says about the state of American society that I’m so willing to settle for what is in effect the lesser of the two evils. I have no hope that media will reduce sensationalist and less important stories to the back burners as they deserve. So in the meantime, bring on The Decision; give me helicopter shots of Terrell Owens doing situps in his driveway; cut in to the evening news with a breaking news alert on the status of Peyton Manning’s shoulder.

We could do (iv) much worse.

i The Washington Redskins: 122-288 since I was 4 years old.

ii And I’m not talking about the result of the trial, none of us should have remotely cared what happened.

iii And by extension Hollywood, TV shows, the music industry, etc.

iv And have done.


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