ONE GAME AT A TIME
“The spirit of Walt Whitman, cheered on by the ghost of A. J. Liebling, moves Matt Hern’s pen in this street-tough but joyful celebration of bodies electric and hopes defiant. The bottom line? Be kind, be tough.” -Mike Davis, author of ‘In Praise of Barbarians’
ONE GAME AT A TIME: WHY SPORTS MATTER
This new book came out in late 2013 and is doing pretty well. Here’s an except from the opening chapter.
CHAPTER 1: GETTING OUR HEADS IN THE GAME
sports as a field of radical possibilities
I want to make an argument in favour of sports.
Playing sports for sure, but also watching, following, cheering, fanning, obsessing, dorking out, believing, caring, really caring. I want you to care about sports, whether or not you pay any attention to them. I want you to think about the sporting world as a legitimate site for contestation, struggle and politics. And not in that cutesy grad-school, high theory/low-culture vein. I mean in the most everyday, ontologically unobscured and obvious way
Sophisticated, ‘thinking’ people of all ideological persuasions have seemingly always held condescending attitudes towards sports – for lots of obvious and some maybe more subtle reasons that dovetail with a generalized disdain (from the left as much as the right) for working-class, everyday people/culture. I’m especially interested in confronting the progressive/leftist/ radical threads that simultaneously patronize and scorn sports, as not just missing, but being willfully blind to the roots of said progressive/leftist/radical marginalization in North America, maybe most especially its abandonment of and by working classes.
Aside from the occasional Plimpton/ Mailer/Oates/Remnick-esque quasi-anthropological forays, intellectuals (and I’m using that term as loosely as imaginable) have pretty much abandoned the sporting world. Most good people tend to shrink from sports as territory fit for testosterone-addled teenage boys, Neanderthals and developmentally-delayed jocks. This retreat has left the sports world easy prey for hyper-consumptive, violent, militaristic, sexist and homophobic politics and handed over the immense power of sports to some of the worst elements of our culture. It is a retreat that has concretized a regulating narrative and self-fulfilling prophecy about sports.
But I’ll submit that the particular characteristics and contours of the sporting world open up radical possibilities that are not readily available elsewhere. Sports offers an arena to resist neo-liberal logics and bodily encounter transformative ideals. The trick is to take that (direct or vicarious) experience and tie it explicitly to larger social and political thinking so that trust, mutual aid and generosity are not simply isolated personal connections but a force for the common good.
No lead is safe
Huge numbers of us love sports for good reason and we should embrace that instead of resisting it. And hoo boy, do we ever love them. Sports Illustrated estimates that 62% of American males and 47% of females play competitive sports regularly. But more than playing we like to watch: in the U.S. 21 of the 45 most-watched TV shows in history are Super Bowls; in India the most watched program of all time was the 2011 Cricket World Cup Final; in China it was the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games which (not coincidentally) remains the most watched global broadcast in history. In Germany 10 of the top 11 most watched broadcasts of all-time are soccer games; in Canada the most watched television broadcast in history was the men’s gold-medal game of 2010 Winter Olympics with 16.6 million viewers watching the entire game, roughly one-half the country’s population. These kinds of stats are repeated across the globe, whether we’re talking TV or live events, numbers that will surprise approximately no one. Now I don’t want to equate television audiences with inherent value, but it sure as hell means something.
Big sporting events dominate cities, incite riots and fill whole newspaper sections with relentless coverage of minutiae and gossip. Sports are the default conversation at parties and bars the world over. It keeps many families together, gives buddies something to talk about and provides narrative shape to many of our days. Teams and players inspire devotion vastly beyond reason. It’s blindingly trite to say that sports are a big fucking deal, pretty much everywhere.
But at the same time many of us have a simultaneous chagrin and embarrassment – as if sports aren’t worthy of our legitimate attention. It’s something we hide like the porn history on our computers, something that stains whatever pretensions we might have of being serious adults. Even on rabid sports talk radio whenever a tragedy occurs commentators trot out an inevitably reflexive cliché: ‘Makes you think about what really matters’ – as if sports didn’t really matter – when they clearly, absolutely do.
Noam Chomsky articulated a fairly common analysis when he suggested that if people paid as much attention to politics as they do to sports we would have a much better world. The default stance of leftists and progressives everywhere, even those who love sports, is this tired old Marxist position that sports are the contemporary opiate of the masses. But Noam never would have said that about music, dance, theatre, painting or poetry. That contradiction is what I’m after here: I want us to consider sports as seriously as we take other ‘high’ art forms, to understand sports as sitting squarely in a spectrum of creative expression, and just as worthy of our serious attention, engagement, reflection, love and respect.
There is something very deep that even ungodly amounts of garish marketing, ultra-nationalist tendencies, hyper-corporatism, and dislikeable athletes with their tricked-out Hummers can’t extinguish: we love sports, both participating and spectating, for lots of really good and valuable reasons. Many of us try (typically futilely) to defend our sporting fixations and to place them in a larger context but it is often a tough sell to our suspicious/exasperated/despairing fellow activists/pals/mates/families.
Obviously I am not defending the sporting world as it exists now: I am arguing for what sports could be. To my mind it’s not a great leap to think of a time when sports are a force for good in our culture and we condescend to those possibilities at our peril. That’s what the rest of this book is after: how and why sports can become a critical part of radical social and political change. I’m arguing that sports can and should really matter.