In an insightful piece for the U.K.-based Prospect magazine, David Goldblatt laments professional sports’ absence from the high culture canon of Western society: art, theater, music, and literature. In an attempt to explain our collective confusion about where sports belong in the cultural hierarchy, Goldblatt describes sports as, among other things, “a religion without a god.” On a whim, I typed “Michael Jordan is god” into Google, and almost a half-million results came up. Keep in mind that Jordan reached the apex of his career more than a decade ago. If Google had existed in 1996, when he led the Chicago Bulls to an NBA-record 72 wins and a championship, I suspect the same search would have easily brought up a million hits. So in the arena of public opinion, at least, sports and professional athletes are a vital, perhaps even sacrosanct, part of our cultural identity.
Renowned musicians sing the national anthem at baseball games, followed by the traditional presidential first pitch of the season. Sports are the subject of award-winning novels and plays. Countless famous pieces of visual art feature athletes. Think of the iconic image of Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over Sonny Liston. Maybe the idea of sports as being too “common” to truly be art is a uniquely European conceit, as Goldblatt suggests. Yet it seems—when flipping through a history book or strolling the halls of a museum—that this dichotomy of art about sports but never as sports is part of the way Americans view culture as well.
Goldblatt exhorts us to treat sports with “the same seriousness that is accorded to the performing arts.” Although this approach would certainly bring a breed of blue-blooded respectability to such tarnished organizations as the NFL, NBA, and MBL, in practice, it would ultimately damage the accessibility of the game. And as any sports fan will tell you, it’s the game that really matters.