Spectacle, sensationalism, and other great American pastimes
If you believe the overworked adage that the media merely give the public what it wants, then it’s hard not to conclude that Americans want little more than childish tantrums and shallow spectacle, no matter the forum.
On the first day of September, while I was moonlighting as a tennis blogger at the United States Open in New York, I sat courtside in Arthur Ashe Stadium as a resilient Serb journeyman, Janko Tipsarevic, ranked 44th in the world, upset 9th-seeded favorite Andy Roddick on the third day of a two-week tournament. The four-set stunner, played under the lights and ending just before midnight, was a study in strategic thinking and staggering guile. That Tipsarevic—who, relative to his opponent, lacked size, strength, and shot-making talent—found a way to overcome a former Open champion in front of a capacity crowd of hostile, noisy Americans was, up until that point, the biggest story of the tournament.
The next morning, surveying the coast-to-coast media coverage, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d passed out in the stands and dreamed the whole thing.
The screaming headlines and accompanying screeds didn’t lead with Tipsarevic’s gutsy on-court performance or include snippets from his insightful and refreshingly forthright post-victory press conference. Instead, the chatter revolved around an utterly meaningless outburst that took place midway through the bout.
Roddick, upset with a line judge’s call—which, by the way, was correct—stomped and fumed for nearly 15 minutes near the end of the third set. In a group interview later that night, the emotionally raw 28-year-old, who had celebrated his birthday 48 hours earlier, didn’t apologize for the ugly incident—although he should have—but he made it very clear more than once that it had nothing to do with his loss. At all. If anything, he said, it might actually have helped him refocus after a period of particularly poor play.
The mainstream press corps is preprogrammed not to let the truth get in the way of a ready-made narrative, though, especially when it involves boorish behavior on the part of an embattled celebrity. So they tweaked the script accordingly. If you had experienced the spectacle only via next-day coverage, you’d swear Roddick lost his cool John McEnroe style and dumped the match.
Of course, this is far from the first, and certainly not the last, time a room full of sports scribes have fallen back on a bankable bromide, especially when a tale’s real protagonist happens to be a no-name athlete from southeastern Europe. Still, to be in the belly of the beast and witness this distortion blithely hatched in the name of a sexy plot hook was jarring.
It revealed the ways in which cheap punditry and the pursuit of pseudo-scandal promise to doom American spectator sports to the shallows of junk culture. It also served as a reminder that too many “journalists” are so used to tweaking the facts for dramatic effect that they’ve lost the ability to police themselves or each other.
As one old-timer told me after his peers distorted Tipsarevic’s conquest: “If you think this is bad, young man, just think of the bullshit these guys write when there’s an election or a natural disaster.”
Diehard progressives have long used sports as an intellectual litmus test. The stereotype is that people who spend their afternoons in the bleachers or consume box scores along with their Cheerios are softheaded.
It’s a fair argument. Spend a few hours listening to the broken-down jocks and self-important broadcasters “debating” whether African American athletes are too “street” or the relative beauty of Tiger Woods’ ex-wife in comparison to his mistress’s, and it’s not hard to understand why most self-respecting citizens keep their Brett Favre jerseys hidden in the closet. Still, I’ve become increasingly comfortable outing myself as an unabashed fan, if only because I don’t recognize myself, or my friends, in those beer commercials that run at halftime.
When I reminisce about baseball, for instance, I remember myself as a boy, watching the World Series with my father and grandfather, reveling in the intimacy created by shared memories of games big and small. I think of seeing basketball greats from Michael Jordan to Dwyane Wade up close and personal, their grace and passion a thing of balletic beauty. I flash on the countless times the tension inherent in close, hard-fought games surged through me like a drug.
I like to tell myself that I watch baseball, basketball, football, tennis, and soccer—either in a stadium or from the bleachers at my local YWCA—for the same sorts of reasons I listen to music or cook or wander art galleries on lazy Saturday afternoons. I tune in because it’s unpredictable; because, inside the lines, as on the stage, what a person looks like or believes is irrelevant; because seeing people test their outer limits, psychological or physical, is fascinating. I watch because it moves me.
Still, it’s hard to deny that that somewhere between the time my grandfather passed away and my father retired, what used to be a welcome distraction from the day’s business has morphed into an all-consuming addiction for many fans. Today’s diehards don’t just spend a few hours every week or so cheering on their favorite team; they gorge themselves like hungover gamblers at a Vegas buffet. We can watch any game, anytime, anywhere on our laptops or our phones or in the bathroom at Buffalo Wild Wings. Between seasons, arcane cable channels broadcast “classic” games to fill the void. If there’s a draft, somewhere there’s a party. And don’t forget the fantasy leagues.
It’s all so very 2010. We can download more music than a person could listen to in a lifetime, make a million “friends” on Facebook, and play video games until our eyes bleed, so why not order up the NFL Sunday Ticket and watch eight football games at once?
I’m ashamed to admit it, but sometimes I surf over to SI.com when I should be reading Foreign Policy. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because, like a lot of other people in their 40s, I’m bored, disaffected, and disconnected; or maybe it’s because total escape is easier than the alternative. Maybe it’s simply because I like watching people actually win something once in a while.
On an unusually brisk evening in late July, I decided to watch my 14-year-old nephew play baseball. It was the first time I’d seen a bunch of kids compete on a diamond since I was in high school. The scene was unrecognizable.
The sandlots of my youth were gone. These teens were doing battle on an honest-to-goodness ball field, complete with permanent bleachers, a sound system, field lights, and a digital scoreboard. My sister was working a concession stand that served hot dogs, hamburgers, and a delicious grilled chicken breast.
Up and down the sidelines, friends and family cheered their favorite team and jeered the opponents. If somebody else’s boy made an error, certain parents moaned, groaned, and griped. Someone even applauded when a little guy got hit by a pitch. I half expected to look over my shoulder and see the ghost of Harry Caraey doing play-by-play.
My nephew’s team lost, a result to which it was unaccustomed. Worse, the game ended on a controversial call. The defeated manager—a hired gun who didn’t have any kids, but was known for his winning record—was so upset he couldn’t bring himself to meet with the team. He just stood a few feet from the dugout (yup, an honest-to-goodness concrete dugout) staring at the hat he’d thrown down in the midst of a tantrum.
The assembled youngsters clearly wanted to join their pals for an ice cream or head home to bed, but they didn’t know how to respond to their coach’s unapproachable rage. So they wandered around listlessly, a mix of disappointment and confusion etched on their faces.
I wanted to go up and say something reassuring, or tousle their hair and pat them on the back. I wanted to tell them that, just a few hours earlier, I’d made the mistake of watching some Hollywood B-lister pitch a fit on Real Time with Bill Maher and I could totally relate to how they must be feeling.
But I had to hit the road. The Minnesota Twins were playing and I didn’t want to miss the final inning.