SPORTS AND THE AMERICAN PYSCHE
SPORTS AND THE AMERICAN PYSCHE
Sports are a vicarious experience, usually a pleasant reliving emotionally of someone else’s exploits. That this is a pleasant recap of one’s own hopes, goals, and aspirations is somewhat conjectural, of course, assuming a basic optimistic base line in one’s cultural and emotional development, which for most of us certainly does have a positive thrust. Even if Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is too nebulous, then the more specific "God Helps Him Who Helps Himself" embraces the positive upward thrust of the American message. A mild but positive "Excelsior!"-- confident yet compassionate, that for the individual and for his fellow brother and sister that a more or less broad playing field of equal opportunity lies open to all allowing us to fairly compete equally so that the result and the rewards will a true measure of one’s competence, effort and merit.
This vicarious experience, notably in the team sports of baseball, football and basketball has been a great unifying factor in our large expanse of land from the Atlantic to the Pacific—"from sea to shining sea". Americans are not xenophobic when expatriate New York Yankee fans cheer lustily for their team in far off Oakland or Seattle. Their ignorant enthusiasm is excused because of the great commonality of purpose in supporting the team of your hopes fantasies and aspirations even on unsympathetic, distant California soil. No fights or riots as happens at times with disgruntled soccer or rugby fans in Europe. The mystique we share seems to be of the promise of continuing hope for the future—more possibility of the pursuit of happiness or the better opportunity to help oneself. Of a bigger economic pie for all to share if we make the effort.
But if our sporting profile most accurately reflects our social and political consensus, this relative equality we share on the playing field now did not come about because of the sport etiquette ordained by the Marquis of Queensbury. Many years of economic repression ensued at the beginning of our collective experience in sports economics before ball players escaped from the shadow of the awful Supreme Court Dred Scott decision that treated black slaves as mere chattel owned completely by the boss, to be bought, traded, or sold at his discretion. Finally, in l976, the Supreme Court threw out the "reserve clause" which allowed owners complete control of their players baseball lives. Free Agency was established, allowing, after a few years of protection for the owners to recoup their initial player costs, these hitherto "wage slaves" to bargain on their own with dramatic, and for the baseball owners, drastic results. In l976 the average major league salary was $45,000; in 2002 it was $2,380,000!!
To date this escalation is unchecked in baseball, but baseball’s overall popularity has continued to grow over the years and many teams are still profitable. True, this is only supposition, since the teams are all privately owned, but less conjectural is the fact that the richest franchise in all of sportsdom is the New York Yankees baseball team, with an estimated selling value of close to a billion dollars. Everyone wants to see the heralded Yankee team, with the largest payroll by far in all of sports history, win, or maybe, hopefully lose. George Steinbrenner, principal owner of he team, shrewd business man that he is, does not mind the losses too much, because of the large television revenues received and the money made on the huge sale of merchandise with the Yankee logo imprinted---on caps, shirts, jackets, and perhaps even on more intimate garments since now women have become involved as fans or just loyal companions of their more ardent male rooters.
But economic justice does not always mean distributing wads of money to players. While the Yankees are truly baseball’s enduring dynasty, over the last ten years other teams with far smaller payrolls have surpassed the mighty Yankee behemoth. Indeed the Anaheim Angels (now moved to Los Angeles) won the World Series in 2003 with one of baseball’s smallest payrolls, using strategies avoiding the big ticket free agency prices of established stars (some past their prime) for players who managed to get on base frequently with less than home run fanfare, with walks, consistently hitting singles and doubles, even by being hit by the pitcher frequently! And then, once on base harrying the pitcher by the threat of stealing and running aggressively. Also, by going "deep in the count" waiting the pitcher out until hopefully you got the pitch that you found best to hit. So there was still room for the little man to thrive, even though the odds were not too favorable.
Baseball, however, has not confronted the reality of economic justice, and its practical application. Professional football and professional basketball have. In these latter two sports a salary cap has been imposed on the amount each team can spend every year, and all television proceeds are shared equally, so that the small regional markets receive as much money as the larger metropolitan areas. Thus more equality is automatically factored into the game. Plus, in the annual draft of new players from the college level, as in the Biblical Gospels, the last shall be first. The teams finishing lowest get the first and best potential choices. And the top teams the least promising picks. (This also is present in baseball, but not TV revenue sharing o the salary cap) Adjustments such as these have definitely leveled the playing field in football, and only rarely have true football dynasties emerged----teams that played in the Super Bowl for at least three years consecutively. These dominant teams were the Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, and New England Patriots. Not quite up to the Yankee dominance in baseball; 26 World Series titles and 39 American league pennants since their formation in l903!!
But our "national pastime"----baseball, as well as football and basketball, soothes our psyche in more ways than a just a path to the pursuit of economic happiness. They are all original, intrinsic American products with some vestiges of English influence. The credit of Abner Doubleday as the inventor of the game in l839 is now of much in doubt, but it is certain that by the era of the Civil War the game had evolved to the physical diamond shape that we have today, with 90 feet between bases and an umpire calling balls and strikes. The advent of the Civil War helped spread the game throughout the nation as one of the prime recreational outlets the armies on both sides had. Baseball was born and bred in a semi rural, pastoral environment where time constraints were not as pressing as now. It is not played by the clock for a set 60 minutes of time, as are football and basketball. Nine innings are the rule, in which 27 batters-at least three per inning-- have a chance to swing at the opposing pitcher’s bedeviling repertoire of curves, sliders, change ups, and plain old 90 mile an hour—or better!!-- fast balls. And if the end of the regulation 9 innings leaves no winner—just an indefinite tie score—we play on, and on, and on. The longest official game on record was played in May of 1984, between Chicago and Milwaukee, and lasted 8 hours and 6 minutes in 25 innings!! (Chicago won.) Just a few days ago our beloved Mets lost to the San Diego Padres in 14 inninngs by a score of 2 to 1.
Personally, nine innings, even if indecisive, are enough for me. If at a ball game, I will leave, avoid the crush of the egress of all those still rapt in the game’s continuing progress at the ball park and follow the conclusion on the radio going home. But I defend the right of the extension of the time frame of the play of the game. We are a competitive people and are not satisfied without a winner, someone who was better at that point in time. Perhaps only a small triumph then, but a marker that indicates the positive and negative to the contestants and the need for improvement or prideful self esteem for each---depending on the side one is involved with. But above all is the almost bucolic, almost timeless sense of easeful anticipation of the baseball diamond and the manicured infield and outfield. There is a sense of purposeful serenity even though the result is in doubt, of basic good will in the coming struggle, of "God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world."
A football field is called a gridiron, and is marked off in lines five yards apart, twenty of them, thus comprising a field of one hundred yards with goal posts ten yards back on each end, and 53 yards wide. It is definitely not as enticing or bucolic as a baseball field. Indeed, as the game was originally developed advancing the football, a unique, specially designed oblate spheroid, was clutched by a runner who literally hurled himself, with the hopeful help of blockers, into the opposition mass of defenders. It had some resemblance to the English game of rugby, but it quickly became game of ball control and possession, allowing the team to retain the offense by keeping the football if they gained at least 10 yards on four successive possessions (downs). Much physical contact and possible injury were inevitable. To alleviate to some extent the direct, continuous contact of the offensive rushing thrust as the prime means of advancing the ball the forward pass became the alternative strategy for gaining ground and hopefully scoring touchdowns. Indeed, long passes became an exciting and important part of the game, both for advancing the ball and for the defense to try and intercept them. A long gracefully arching pass was called "a bomb" and a thing of beauty, indeed, on its hopeful way to the possible receiver and the straining defenders trying to keep up with him. Almost a frantic ballet.
More or less football became a modified and mostly controlled game of war, or as George Will—the ardent baseball fan put it—"Violence punctuated by committee meetings". But it is more than that. The violence is a controlled strategy to make each of the eleven members of the team execute their essential part of the play, which meant blocking, tackling deceiving or confusing his designated individual opponent. With this successful group effort the running backs and passers could most probably succeed, and every play had to be preceded by a huddle to redefine the battle plan. And the coaches on the sideline had an integral part to play, too, even with wireless messages to the quarterback—via his specially adapted helmet!-- on last second updates and changes. And part of this elaborate strategy had to consider time constraints, because football was a 60 minute game—with limited controlled time outs; not the large fund of time that baseball allowed. And the violence and injuries were not applauded but silently mourned as an unfortunate consequence. (Not like in hockey, where the almost scripted "brawl" seems factored into the regular scenario). World events in the last century have made us a continual participant in international war, and the football field is still the healthiest outlet where these aggressive elements of our psyche can be released, refined, and hopefully eliminated.
Basketball is a marvelously made up American game in response to the increasing urbanization of the industrial age. Large outdoor tracts of land for football or baseball play give way here to a relatively small indoor gymnasium and only five people. And also a pronounced gender change. Here women can play. While football is only for men, and women are still marginal in baseball---except mainly for softball—they flourish in basketball, which emphasizes speed and ball handling skill. Currently there is a nascent but growing women’s national league making strides on the national professional scene comparable to the more well known men’s National Basketball Association.
More importantly, basketball can be played on almost any small urban space. Thus it is inherently a poor man’s sport and can be played as an impromptu pick up game in the school gym or any oudoor playground, as well as in the more organized indoor formal courts. Gradually, as in football and baseball, minorities, mainly black, began to participate. The color barrier, of course, was first pierced in l947 in baseball with Jackie Robinson’s almost heroic stance ( aided and abetted by Branch Ricky, the white Brooklyn Dodger general manager). In l948 the consensus All American college basketball team was all white, and ten years later it was all black. A landmark black-white basketball event occurred in l966 in an NCAA championship event when the all white prestigious University of Kentucky team coached by the famous Adolf Rupp was defeated by an all black unknown team from El Paso, Texas. Today, of course, people of non white color dominate all three sports we have discussed, either because of inherent proclivity and natural ability or because they represent the easiest path up with little or no latent discrimination.
Basketball, the most recent of the sports to have evolved, most resembles the modern era we live in. It is a timed 60 minute affair, like football, but not many "committee meetings" as in football, where the play is interrupted not only between each play but also after each score. In basketball, there are few interruptions except for a half time pause for 15 minutes and for the brief times for foul shots and the few allotted time outs. Otherwise play is continuous with the same players both on offense and defense shifting their roles automatically as the changing situations demand. A sort of controlled chaos rewarded mainly by being alert and responding to any sudden changes in the flow of the action. Swift coordination with one’s fellow teammates is most important-- TEAMWORK! There are, of course individual star shooters and rebounders, but to set up their scoring plays one must conquer and not drown in the almost continuous flow of the action. But the rhythm of modern life has almost the same resonances as the almost frenetic up and down and back and forth court running of the basketball game. Perhaps that is why basketball is becoming ever more popular, not only in this country but in several adjacent countries, and is now an Olympic sport.
Many times baseball, football, and basketball adequately reflect our inner needs and fantasies. But at times, to me, basketball’s spontaneity is unsettling, seemingly out of control. While I know it perfectly reflects the hyper pace of life in our times and contributes to the dubious distinction of the growth of prozac and ambien sales I yearn for the relative timeless Erewhon of baseball, not constricted by time’s encroaching pace, and the friendly crowd waiting in relaxed suspense for the game to begin. And even if the Mighty Casey of the Mudville team does strike out, and that other Casey with the Strawberry Blonde are both joyless or even disconsolate, tomorrow is another day for Casey at the Bat---but of course, not with steroids! And while the obvious physical impact of football is a negative, the diminishing of the "game" of war to a football stadium which will be revenue producing to schools of learning as well as professional athletes is very nourishing to my psyche. And baseball and football are so conducive with their committee huddle pauses and between inning interludes for calm reflection, trenchant analysis and prayerful pondering between the actual action!
Almost as important as the game itself.