On sport and story

I’ve not been a raving sports fan for many years, but I still occasionally watch games on TV. I had a fantastic time this weekend at Chris and Dan’s watching the Kentucky Derby. The Saints’ Superbowl victory still makes me feel all warm and fuzzy months later. The Winter Olympics were a bigger deal in Vermont than they are in most places as we root for our native skiiers and boarders. I also catch boxing matches when I can, and recently began watching a fun series on the Travel Channel called Dhani Tackles the Globe. All those events have made me think about sports more often than I used to, and especially about how sports are portrayed on television.

Sport is one of the very few activities not directly related to survival that can be found in every culture. We all eat, drink, sleep, procreate, and protect our young, but beyond that? We all search for altered states of consciousness, we all try to explain the world around us the best way we know how, and (germane to this discussion) we all play games. (Not every individual will necessarily do all these things, but any coherent social group of humans will.) For cultures with less developed technology, sports are an important tool to teach youngsters survival skills and to let young men display their abilities to potential mates. Modern folks like us don’t need to be able to throw a javelin straight to write a database or jockey a cash register, but the appeal remains.

I think a lot of that appeal is the excitement of the true unknown. So much of contemporary media and entertainment is yawningly predictable: a disease of the week on the hospital drama, sitcom dating hijinks that were already tired on Three’s Company, a crack bomb-disposal squad that inspires no nail-biting whatsoever. (Last year’s biggest hit movie, Avatar, had already been done by Orion as Dances with Wolves and by Disney as Pocahontas; viewers either forgave the similarity or didn’t notice.) But in sports, the viewer doesn’t know how matters are going to end up. Neither does anybody else involved, for that matter–participants, coaches, expert commentators, producers, etc. There may be favorites, even a heavy favorite, but an early NFL commissioner put it best:  “On any given Sunday, any team can beat any other team.”

With so many people eager to watch sports, television has broadcast games from the beginning. But there’s a tension between the instincts of television programmers and the appeal of sports that’s been growing deeper for some years. It boils down to this: TV producers want stories. Good stories sell, and TV networks spend obscene amounts of money and anguished effort trying to figure out exactly what aspects of exactly what kinds of stories sell the best. So they couch English Premier League matches, heavyweight boxing championships, and autumn baseball games in the language of coherent narrative. Hometown boys show up to try for the big job, tattooed bad boys get in trouble with the law, scrappy underdogs just might make it this year. Sports broadcasts use swelling music, silken-voiced commentators, heartfelt interviews, carefully assembled clip pieces, and swooping cameras to emphasize sport as narration. But sport is as messy as any other aspect of human life, steadfastly refusing to follow Aristotelian laws of drama. The veteran player with bad knees might crumple to the ground rather than fight grimly through the pain; the fight of the century might turn out to be an unpopular split decision.

I’d like to see  a fresh different attitude on the part of the networks. What if we focused more attention on athletes’ training than on their drinking? What if we stopped pretending that a professional sports team is some kind of embodiment of a city’s urban spirit? What if we got back to just enjoying some really, really good games?

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