Monday, January 10, 2005

While I was home I watched a fair amount of ESPN talking head shows and listened to a fair amount of sports talk radio. I generally enjoy both of these things, except that there's one part that I just can't stand--all too often, "sports talk" turns into "moral outrage talk" in discussing the travails of various athletes. Perhaps this bugs me in part because I'm not easily morally outraged, and certainly not by things like end zone celebrations. And perhaps it bugs me because I'm tuning in for actual discussion about sports but instead I'm getting soapbox crap. But also, I think it bugs me because the whole phenomenon is both conformist and levelling,

The best and worst thing about team sports is the same thing that is the best and worst thing about militaries--their subsuming of the individual into a collective for mutual advantage. The good is that you can accomplish more together than individually. The bad, though, is that the conformity required tends to spill over into areas well beyond the collective goals. For instance, what happens in the end zone after a score really has nothing to do with accomplishing team goals.

Much more of concern to me, though, is the levelling aspect of the "moral outrage" school of sports broadcasting. Jayson Williams shot and killed a guy. Joe Horn celebrated a touchdown in an unusual way. Randy Moss left the field when a game was mathematically out of reach (recovering an onsides kick takes more than the 2 seconds the Vikes had, and a recovered onside kick cannot be advanced) but not actually over. To the outraged, however, each of these incidents becomes a single tally on a scoreboard where one tally creates an "out of control" ahtlete or one with "a past" or "off-the-field issues", and multiple tallies creates a "cancer in the locker room". The number of tallies, it seems to me, far outweighs any judgment of their relative severity in determining whether or not an athlete is a "troublemaker". The problem is multiplied when one is reminded that transgressions are not necessarily illegal or immoral conduct or bad play, but also include behavior that breaks no rule except unspoken, barely understood limits of acceptable on-field conduct.

Sports are supposed to be about meritocracy and rewarding performance. Randy Moss scored two touchdowns while playing through injury (something we supposedly also value), while Brett Favre threw four picks and made one of the most boneheaded, underhand, 5 yards over the line throws anyone's ever seen. Who's getting killed in the press today? Moss, for how he celebrated his second touchdown. It's ricoculous.

All that said, I'm as tired as anyone of seeing celebrations after every tackle for a one-yard loss. But I'm not about to turn it into an indictment of our whole culture...

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