Back to basics?

National | The failure of the XFL and the return of baseball's high strike may signal a recovery of civilization

Issue: "Aging in place," March 31, 2001

Pop culture reduces everything-education, politics, even religion-to entertainment. Pleasure-crazed citizens-turned-spectators, conditioned by TV and consumerism, have to be subjected to ever-higher doses of stimulation; otherwise, they become paralyzed by boredom. For many Americans, sports-always before a source of excitement-have become boring. Like education, politics, and religion, they think sports needs a pop culture makeover.

Athletics is a classical enterprise. It was the ancient Greeks who turned the universal love of games into what we call sports. Just as classical education develops the mind for its own sake, pushing the mental gifts human beings have been given to their full potential, classical sports developed physical prowess for its own sake. Just as the pursuit of music included nothing particularly practical, so running around in circles at great speeds might seem pointless. But in Aristotle's terms, striving for any kind of perfection is a good in itself.

To be sure, the Greek games, such as the culture-wide contests at Olympus, created fan frenzy. Just as ordinary folks can benefit from contemplating the work of an artist or a scientist, they can take pleasure at great feats of strength or physical skill, in each case marveling at the gifts God gave to men. The games also brought local communities together, as they cheered for their local champions, whose individual victories became victories for the whole community. The Olympic athletes became celebrities, though their only tangible award was a crown made out of leaves. To work so hard and to achieve so much, with so little to show for it beyond a mere token of honor, was part of the glory.

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Evidently, the Apostle Paul approved of these classical sports, since he used them as analogies of the Christian life (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 2 Timothy 2:5). Though the modern Olympic movement tried at first to uphold these ideals, we no longer have a worldview that can sustain them. Thuggish dream teams and doped-up East German bionic women shattered the Olympic principle of amateur sportsmanship.

But the major change came with television. Merely watching people run really fast, jump really high, and compete in games most Americans did not know anything about-such as fencing and Greco-Roman wrestling-would not be very entertaining, reasoned the TV sports producers. So instead of just broadcasting the sporting event, the TV coverage would create stories. Fans have always been interested in learning about heroes. But the new minidocumentaries have turned the athlete into a soap-opera-like character. To create a soap-opera-like plot, producers introduced conflict, such as the terrible obstacles the athlete had to overcome to compete in the Olympics. That set up a tear-jerking tragedy if the athlete lost, and a happy-ever-after ending if the athlete won. Making sports more of a drama would attract more women viewers, producers believed, and it did.

In the meantime, though sports continued to play a big role in American culture-and became a huge business with athletes being paid hundreds of millions of dollars to play their games, a big jump from a crown of leaves-their popularity started to change. The money, celebrity, and hype in professional sports kept the nation's attention, sometimes at the expense of sheer athletics.

Baseball-that most classical of games with its geometry, mathematics, and rigorously enforced objective laws-lost its appeal for many Americans. Even fans, reflecting the impatience of TV-shortened attention spans, began demanding to speed up the game. A retreat from the leisurely timelessness that had always been part of the game's appeal only brought new demands to change the rules to make baseball more exciting. Ratings for televised games, even the World Series, slipped even more than the average program slippage as cable and computers provided competition.

Basketball, with its non-stop action, surged in popularity for awhile, but TV ratings for the NBA plunged 17 percent this year alone, and many teams are playing in mostly-empty arenas. Football became America's favorite sport, offering a more elemental physical conflict of human collisions and knocking people down, combined with grace and finesse, as athletes do what many in today's workplace have to do: reach a goal before you run out of time. But lately even football has been slipping, and Monday Night Football tried adding a comedian.

Enter the XFL. Vince McMahon had already constructed the World Wrestling Federation. Here was a sport wholly subordinated to entertaining the audience. Not only could you have characters, conflict, and drama amidst all of the bone-crushing action; you could play up the violence-plus, with the help of scantily clad models at ringside, work in a sex angle. To create the maximum effect, though, the contests had to be scripted, including who would win. Mr. McMahon added to the mix elaborate soap opera rivalries and intrigues, complete with love triangles, kidnapping schemes, surprising plot reversals, and self-conscious blurrings of fiction and reality of the sort that postmodern novelists keep trying to pull off.


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