Monday, July 24, 2017

The Declining Consequence Of Sports

Previously published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In his book “Queer”, William S. Burroughs wrote, “What happens when there is no limit?  What is the fate of The Land Where Anything Goes?”  Considering national and world events since last fall, a running scroll of unfortunate chaos, it feels like Burroughs’s questions are about to be answered. 

By any apolitical, objective assessment, the last six months have been “unsettling”.  Anything can be said about anyone.  The quality of the nation’s health care appears secondary to a political score.  With inconvenient scientists and scientific fact systematically removed from the record, environmental stewardship has been disregarded.  International relations are both strained and unrecognizable – long-time friends are on the fritz; long-time foes are flirting.  The nation’s intelligence community is under a confounding internal attack.  All news is fake; all media not stroking The Administration’s massive and fragile ego are lying swine.  The draw of Twitter at 3 a.m. is contributing to nationwide insomnia.  Every day brings a new crisis - some real, much contrived.  Recent history is being obliterated; the future is a coin flip.  The truth…it’s whatever it needs to be at any given moment.    

Ah, but what does it matter?  Anything goes.  Right then.  So it does.   

In these equally bizarre and historic times, the role of sports and their social utility is difficult to place.  The games we watch have traditionally been a definitive respite, a place where people of different backgrounds and political persuasions unite to celebrate victories, mourn defeats and generally escape the grind of life’s responsibilities.  For doubters of sports’ magical ability to bridge deep personal chasms, consider this: During the 1968 Presidential campaign, Hunter S. Thompson, sworn Richard Nixon antagonist, scored a private meeting with the future president…why?...because Thompson, like Nixon, was a great connoisseur of pro football and Nixon, knowing this, apparently needed a moment to relax and converse with someone of equal pigskin intellect.   

But now it is all so confusing.  Would it occur to Donald Trump to chat with Rachel Maddow if he knew she loved football and shared Trump’s failed vision for the defunct USFL?  I think not.  Where oh where has the charm of this one-time ultimate and all-welcoming Garden of Eden gone?  Is it still there, unspoiled by an acrimonious world that in any other forum demands we take sides, dismiss numerous similarities and obsess over our differences?  And are sports capable of promoting social change, as it did when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 or as they do more subtlety today by achieving workforce diversity that should be the envy of corporate America?  I’m willing to consider it.  I’d rather conclude that sports hasn’t changed and that everything else around them has.    

Whatever the truth, sports’ ability to bind society and demand its best feels diminished.  In every moment of crisis over the last 100 years, through wars, presidential assassinations, the Civil Rights movement and terrorist attacks, sports weren’t just games being played; they mattered – psychologically, socially and historically.  Now, in the world where anything goes, they are just there, seemingly along for the ride and hesitant to influence the vector of this pivot point in history.
Do I expect athletes to become swarming political activists?  No, but I expect more than what has been delivered.  I expect more from Kevin Durant than immature and meaningless Twitter wars with trollers.  I expect more from the NBA than giving LaVar Ball and his “Big Baller Brand” endless screen-time.  I expect more from Tom Brady than channeling Terrell Owens’s “I love me some me” sideline rant, and writing a book on how to be like…Tom Brady. 

Is some of that entertaining?  Is it safe?  Personally beneficial?  Yes, but it is also diminishing and inconsequential in a time of great consequence.  Edward Murrow once said, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty…when the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”  Professional sports used to be part of that loyal opposition.  Maybe the money and the lifestyle are so good now that athletes are content just being athletes…even if it kills a little of America’s soul.  

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