Like many Midwestern gals, my cousin Kris often likes men easy categorized in bright shiny boxes. Once in Chicago, while I was reclined on the couch enjoying a lazy afternoon Cubs game with multiple beers, she protested: â€œyouâ€™re an intellectual, you canâ€™t like sports!â€
Intellectuals and sports? Can they go together? The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould was famous for his sports essays including a brilliant one on the disappearance of the .400 hitter, which everyone should read. Chicago intellectuals also mask their braininess from the opposite sex in bars by hiding behind t-shirts and baseball caps proclaiming their favorite teams, but camouflage is not true fandom. Itâ€™s like students who tell me: â€œDude, I love philosophy. Philosophy and the Simpsons is my favorite book!â€
The hard line was laid down by theorists from the Frankfurt School, exiled German Marxists who sat out WWII in California, NYC and other places, and hypothesized that sports, popular culture and all other American art forms were all designed to keep the masses infantile and unaware of their massive exploitation by big business and politicians. The blue collar workers take it on the chin every day, but feel like winners when their ball team scores. Maybe so. But what about that certain root-for-the-underdog, Spartican allegiance to sports enjoyment, which could be considered pro-revolutionary, at least by American standards. â€œAmerica loves a winner and will not tolerate a loser!â€ bellows George C. Scott as General Patton. Really? Does America love the New York Yankees?
Or are sports just anti-revolutionary, with their mythos that favors the establishment, I mean â€˜fair playâ€™ and â€˜rulesâ€™ and â€˜may the best team winâ€™? Do sports and other entertainment play a role in infantilizing the public so that it is incapable of rising in revolution: If you were an editor, which headline would you run:
â€œOil companies making record profits!â€ OR
â€œBritney Enters Rehab! Again!â€
I noticed after returning from a long trip abroad that American television is peppered with subliminal suggestion that warp the mind towards the predetermined conclusion: â€˜do nothing, youâ€™re perfect, just sit there, be docile and eat what weâ€™re shoving at you.â€™
Ever wonder why you feel angry if you watch too long?
Or are we intellectuals too prone to conspiracy theories?
Are we paranoid?
Or are they really after us?
While away, I was amazed how this nerd or sports fan distinction doesnâ€™t exist in Europe where the religion is football, or soccer as we Yanks call it. Yeah, I know, it must be an intellectualsâ€™ game, because, like baseball, itâ€™s slow, boring, byzantine in its rules, etc. etc. But football also appeals to violent Hooligans, the ultimate anti-intellectuals. It is also very surprising to many people abroad that America doesnâ€™t produce hooligans at football or baseball games in nearly the same numbers. But thatâ€™s because we are too stupefied into obedience, right?
Intelligence and a taste for violence and revolt are not at all irreconcilable. I know a now eminent art-historian who had gleefully busted some heads in Rome during his teen years as a soccer maniac. The Granta and New Yorker fiction editor, Bill Buford wrote a memoir â€œAmong the Thugsâ€ about encounters with fans (or rather â€œsupportersâ€) of Manchester United, also my favorite clubâ€”even if it is the moral equivalent of the Yankees (youâ€™ll see why I like them below). At one point Buford sees the mythic Bill Gardiner, warrior chief of the ICF, West-Ham hooligans, standing his ground in a brutal melee. It is a crucial moment. Buford never managed to interview him, but these moments of existential violence seem to transfix the writer, the sheer brutality of it. I am also fascinated by the underside of European football, although I made the mistake of riding in a subway car with some FC Bayern MÃ¼nchen supporters when they were jumped by AC Milan fans, nearly getting jumped myself. Ironic that I almost took a beating for them because I really hate Bayern! In a great game in 1999 Man United beat them 2-1, after trailing 1-0 well into the final minutes. I hated living in Munich and was overjoyed when the English United humiliated them on home turf.
The connection between sports and intellectuals goes way, way back. The Theban poet Pindar composed odes to athletes that classicists still treasure. And although many sports figures today are more street thug than â€œgentlemen-sportsman,â€ there is still a great tradition of student athletesâ€”I get them in my classes sometimes. Far from taking away their focus, it seems that sports actually teach them how to study harder, and how to tolerate no excuses from themselves or others. And I have recently discovered a new connection between sports and intellect. Gambling. Now I have long believed that many professional sports are fixed, although I think our Republic is not yet ready for this knowledge, on the heels of the steroids/doping scandals. Yet, even if I donâ€™t believe the outcomes are entirely the result of pure athletic competition, hell, I just enjoy trying to second guess the fixers. I am pretty sure the 2008 Cubs are in, folks. A huge corporate media bonanza is on the way: great ratings, great story, great advertising and in short a major merchandizing event. I just hope my old hometown team, the Yankees are picked to do a lay down. I even believe that the 2005 Chicago White Sox championship was a â€œdry run,â€ a chance to do some â€œtesting on focus groupsâ€ to see which consumer markets could be best tapped with the Cubbies in â€™08.
Or am I paranoid?
America may not have many soccer hooligans….
….but it does have student rioting at Michigan State University following the elimination of the basketball teamFollow paulmbanks