When I was a kid, high school sports were my home town’s main identity. No question about it. And playing sports was where a young person could be somebody. If I was going to be significantly noticed by an adult, or a girl, or even God, it would be on the basketball court or football field.  With “the crowd going wild,” as they still say it today.

In this small community of farmers and merchants, as in other nearby communities, here was mythological material.   Sparta versus Athens. Ithaca versus Troy. Home versus Away. As a grade-schooler, I once witnessed the opposing team’s bus arrive to the football field with the players inside singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

As I moved through my playing years, starting in junior high, the coaches I played for were the men among men. Nothing was more important to me than to please them. The movie “Hoosiers,” with Coach Norman Dale (played by Gene Hackman) captured how it felt for so many of us of that era. And in Marion, Michigan I had my own Coach Dale in Coach Dietze.

That high drama, however, only takes you up to the ripe old age of 17 — or 21 if you’re among the few who can lengthen it out into college. (Only one in a hundred thousand makes it as a pro.) At some point a big “Now what?” has to come. Novelist John Updike, in Rabbit Run, masterfully presents the “Now what?” crisis of Rabbit Angstrom, a former stand-out high school basketball player, at present a young husband/father whose life revolves around a disappointing marriage and a low level, almost comical sales job.

It turns out that Rabbit’s playing days poorly prepared him for an all too typical adult life. In his mid-20’s, he feels hopelessly sidelined insofar as further dramatic possibilities go — except for the unseemly, even tragic dramas he creates for himself, so out of sync he is with the workaday world that he has been abruptly dropped into and now has to find his way out of. Or die.

Heavy stuff!  A lively, dramatic teenage life that nothing later will compare to? The excitement over at age twenty, when Rabbit’s got maybe six more decades to go?… He could have settled into becoming a sports nut, I suppose, living vicariously through ever new generations of athletes coming on. A lot of former jocks do that. A lot of non-jocks do it, too. Live in the past. Or in an imagined past, imagination overrunning reality.  What are sports freaks really but persons who have lost their way.  In the collective, they’re a snapshot of a society having gone wrong….  We’re number one! We’re number one!

Anyway, back in the mid 20th-century, there were still natural barriers against becoming a sports nut. Beyond local sports, there was but one or two games a week for Rabbit (and me) to watch on a small black and white TV. Unless your favorite college football team got a bowl bid, you probably didn’t see them play. (And imagine, only four bowls. Maybe five.) The first time I saw Michigan State play in the 1954 season was in the Rose Bowl. I loved the Spartans, but the mere lack of availability to them kept a cap on things.

The same thing for the Detroit Tigers, my favorite baseball team. Very few games were televised, and then with basically one camera angle from high up behind home plate. I never saw a player promoting some stupid product on TV. Salaries were close to what the ordinary worker made. Most of the major leaguers had to have a winter job to make ends meet.

For my birthday present, my dad drove me to Detroit to see one game a year in person.  We sat in the general admission seats, which cost $1.50, or the bleachers which cost 75 cents.  The 50’s/60’s was another world of college and pro players, and, more to the point here, another world of fandom, before it morphed out of all sane proportions into the omnipresent fantasy-land that it has become today — as if the goal of spectator sports is to lull you permanently to sleep about everything else but itself.

. . .

And how strange, really, has this spectator sports crazed world become? Recently I went for the first time to Wild Wings because someone told me Tuesday was half price night on wings. I counted 25 large screen TV’s, all showing sports. America could be owned by a few billionaires now, and would anybody in here care? The Western world could be taking a hard right turn towards Fascist governments and would anybody in Wild Wings know about it. (And what’s wild about a chicken wing? Chickens can’t even fly.)

There are millions upon millions more sports fans than there were in the mid-1900’s.   A growing harmless fun? Or escapism having run amuck? On his office door, a colleague of mine (a grown man obviously, a very nice man, too) has been checking off with x’s the days remaining until the Steelers’ opening day. If a child did that, we’d say “How cute.” Average fans today can analyze a broken football play down to the smallest detail, and remain ignorant of the most glaring details of ecological and societal breakdown all around them. A speaker, whom my employer spent thousands of dollars to fly in from Colorado, opened his remarks by saying that if he looked haggard it was because he was emotionally exhausted from watching the Denver Broncos’ season opener on TV last night. How charming.

If I sound harsh, it’s perhaps part of my resistance against getting pulled into the current of this in-your-face, artificial (market-driven) enthusiasm. One trick I have to keep from being swept away is to remind myself that during any period of my life where I felt really alive, I was not into spectator sports. Any time I was falling in love, or grieving a loss, or politically riled up, like the time I was in the front lines of protestors against the Vietnam War, I was not thinking about how the Detroit Lions were doing.

Conclusion: the more interested in spectator sports I am, the less intensively I’m living my own life.  Still, in a sports mad society, most of us, especially ex-jocks, are going to be tempted into spectatordom now and then.  And lest I drift too far down that stream, I have my list of reminders handy.

One.  In general, I don’t like the modern athlete.  I know that too much praise and too many rewards spoil little kids. No different for these bigger kids.

Two.  Pertaining to point one, stunted character development in athletes has obviously led to the current culture of not just poor, but horrible sportsmanship. The bragging. The taunting (verbal bullying). The showing off. I grew up in an era where all of the above were thought to be in bad taste, if not downright disgusting.

Three.  The crass displays of patriotism that goes hand in hand with sports events nowadays is a huge turn-off for me. My god, the norm for a big pro football game is to cover the entire field with a flag for the playing of the national anthem, then to fly over a few fighter jets while the fans ooh and ahh.

Sorry.  The love of one’s country doesn’t come that cheap.

. . .

Go Kaepernick!



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