Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Post For Us, We Who Dodged Out of Pep Rallies by Anthony McCarthy

Organized games are something I just don’t get at all. A form of entertainment in which 100% of the players and fans are hoping that 50% of the players will not do well and so 50% of the fans will be unhappy, it just doesn’t make sense to me. What’s there to be happy about? The unhappiness of the opposing players and fans? If it was the skill and pluck of the players that made people happy, wouldn’t it be set up so the criteria for achieving pleasure allowed all of the players to succeed to the best of their ability? I’ve never understood how, for example, the absurdly named World Series could come out with one of two superbly skilled teams being complete losers. Isn’t the losing side comprised of excellent athletes as well?

When you go to a concert or other performance in the arts, you hope everyone does well and the entire audience is edified by the results, unless you’re a creepy, cynical critic with ulterior motives. Why do they go to the performance to begin with, you have to wonder. Maybe their perverse pleasure delivers the same flavor of gratification that the winning side gets from contemplating the pain of the losers in sports.

Yes, I know it will be said that analysis is ‘thinking too much about it’. But, isn’t it accurate? I'm going to continue this analysis from my personal experience and observation. Having gone to school before Title Nine, it is an analysis of the antiquated culture. I don't know how the greater participation of girls and women in sports has changed things, I rely on readers to fill that in.

Apart from the violence and injury that seems to be an intrinsic part of much of it, the thing I most resent about organized sports is the phony moral value attached to athletic competition. Since shortly after the age of six, I’ve resented that I’m “supposed to like it”. That was a constant expectation of adults during childhood, it was taken for granted that “kids like sports” when it’s clear that many don’t. Refusal to go along with that enforced regime of false enthusiasm carried opprobrium as well as dumfounded astonishment. As Foghorn Leghorn put it, “There’s somethin’ just ‘yeeesh’ about a boy doesn’t play baseball’*. And, for a boy back in those days, it also carried threats of violence, especially if you were unlucky enough to have a school involved in some stupid championship. I especially hated the mandatory pep rallies and the risk involved in illegally skipping out of those.

The bromide “sports builds character” was a patent lie. The nice kids who played sports started out nice, the thugs would have been thugs if they’d never put on a team uniform. And there were cases when a kid who used to be nice took a turn for the worse, clearly as a result of taking up a team sport. No one got their character built, though egos and the kind of pack mentality that being part of an approved clique certainly brought out the worst in a lot of them. Maybe you could say that it was bad character that sports built up. The jocks I went to school with, sometimes benefitted in later life from their reputations gained from playing sports in school, sometimes to the detriment of their employers and their customers. The nice guys sometimes didn’t finish ahead but they generally remained nice guys.

The association of sports and traditional “christian” morality is a real hoot. Jocks are just so famous for their chastity, their respect for the dignity of women, and their sobriety, aren’t they. That obviously mendacious identification of “christian” morality also is made with the military, the association of which, with sports, would add about another thousand words to this post so I’ll leave that to you.

As for health, forty years after, from what I’ve seen, it’s often the jocks who are the most overweight and have bad knees, backs and hips. For some reason gluttony for “manly food” and beer seems to be a constant feature of sports culture.

The identification of sports with schools is entirely unfortunate, there is the already mentioned crypto-fascism of “school spirit” but the mania for school sports also brings other problems. Many of the principalis and, especially, vice-principals in the schools I’m familiar with seem to have little apart from their having been sports coaches to qualify them. There have been teachers hired outside of their college majors based on their coaching qualifications. One basketball coach in our highschool majored in business, was hired to teach biology to vocational students** and went on to teach history, also to vocational students who generally get the educational short stick. He was the tallest and one of the most incompetent teacher in the place. And he wasn’t a very good coach as it turned out. He’s a vice principal now.

Well, some of us never give in to the pressure and once liberated from that form of penal servitude we are happily free to ignore sports in most, though not all instances. I couldn’t care less about any of it, except for when some sector of the sports industry tires to extort tax money from a public denied the most basic services it has a right to expect. I don’t dislike people just for their being involved in professional sports and am glad to find out there are some of them who are fine people. Though I’m never, ever surprised to hear some sports star endorse a Republican.

* What there really is, is something cruel and sick about adults who continue and encourage that school age pecking order behavior against children down to ages you can count on one hand. There isn’t anything more despicable than an adult who does that, some of them employed as teachers. The ones who do that are generally built by sports and sports fandom.

** Vocational track students are often the victims of the least competent teachers in a school. People who often go on to work growing and handling food and caring for young children and sick people would seem to need better biology teachers than people who are going to major in English or history or financial piracy.

Update: Just remembered, Ruth Moore, the finest writer my state has yet produced, in my opinion, gave the about best account of what this was like in her novel The Walk Down Maine Street.