Politics & Policy

The Fan Perplexed

What happened to the time when stories about athletes and games meant something?

Without nostalgia, the sports fan would perish. Golden memories of great games and legendary players sustain him through the bleak times and he is never more rhapsodic than when recounting past glories. Of course, when he goes on and on about the good old days, he can also be quite a bore.

#ad#Just because things aren’t the same as they used to be doesn’t mean the old days were better times. And when it comes to sport, it is awfully hard to argue that the athletes were better or the games more exciting in those other, nobler times. Check out some film of professional basketball as it was played 50 years ago, and then ask yourself if the game today isn’t vastly more exciting and the players aren’t exponentially more talented than the guys who made a living on the old two-handed set shot.

Still … there is something in the air that gives the Old Fashion Fan (OFF) qualms about the state of the sporting universe. Certainly the athletes are gifted. And the games–some of them, anyway–are memorably thrilling. Consider, for instance, last year’s Rose Bowl, which has to be one of the best college football games ever.

But when the OFF goes to the television or newspaper for the sports coverage and a little nourishment, he inevitably comes away disappointed and worse. We are, he thinks, missing the point.

Consider the Barry Bonds watch. Last week, you could be catching the game between the Red Sox and Orioles on ESPN when, suddenly, the action shifts to San Francisco so we could follow Bonds at the plate. If he homers, the announcers explained reverently, it will tie him with Babe Ruth’s career number of 714 home runs.

Yes. And put him in a tie for second place on the all-time home-run list (behind Henry Aaron, who hit 755). So why are we cutting away to watch Barry? When did second place become so important? Does anyone remember the name of the second man to climb Mt. Everest? And just who was the second aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic? Should we all stop what we are doing and watch some kicker attempt the second longest field goal in NFL history?

Second place doesn’t make you a big story. Not even in golf. And, of course, we all realize the media is making a big deal of Bonds catching Ruth for other, more sinister reasons. Bonds has become the baseball equivalent of Mike Tyson. He is a smoldering, tormented man, and one experiences a little frisson of danger in watching him. There is something shameful in it. The merciful thing would be to ignore the disgraced Bonds and his sad quest, and pay attention to the games and players who still count.

Mercifully, Bonds didn’t get his home run, but, incredibly, the paper I was reading the next morning reported that. They also reported that Michelle Wie–the 16-year-old female golf phenom–had accomplished the following:

· She had been invited to play in a men’s tournament in Europe.

· She had been exempted from having to qualify for the women’s open in America.

· She had not yet been eliminated from the qualifying tournaments for the men’s U.S. Open.

Wie had not actually won anything in the last few days. In fact, she is yet to win her first tournament on the Ladies Professional Golf Tour. Wie has, however, been the subject of more breathless commentary than any woman golfer who has won a tour event. Actually winning is just a detail once you’ve reached escape velocity as a sporting celebrity, so Wie gets a pass on that pesky little shortcoming. It used to be we admired sports figures who could scratch and claw their way to victory over rivals who were more talented but lacked the intangibles … the heart. In Wie’s case, we are supposed to be in awe of her transcendent talent even as players of lesser ability–and maybe more guts–finish ahead of her.

Sticking with golf, there is the case of John Daly, who is famous for hitting the long ball–in every sense of that phrase. He is the antithesis of Ben Hogan, whose grit and discipline got him to the top; it also helped him come back from a near fatal automobile accident, which made it seem unlikely that he would ever play again, much less dominate. But Hogan walked the course in pain and triumph and was the best golfer of his day, a remote and difficult man, undeniably something of an artist.

Daly is the other thing. A natural who treats his talent and his body–indeed, his life–with contempt. Too much drinking. Four wives, the current one in prison. Prodigious gambling. Daly’s life is the kind of mess that makes you want to avert your eyes. So, of course, he gets adoring air time on 60 Minutes to promote his new book, which is a must-read for slobs.

You could despair, I suppose, and give up on the sports page, but the front page is worse–and worse than ever. No doubt it’s tiresome to listen to an OFF reminisce about the times when sports coverage was better, when people like Red Smith and W. C. Heinz wrote about the games and players with a lyric honesty that made them seem important, so you really did care who won.

Tiresome but also, sadly, true. And not likely to change.

Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.

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