One way to start a dialogue on the ironically delicate subject of what it is we want from professional sports might be to ask ourselves why we still have professional boxing. We sent Michael Vick to prison for letting dogs tear themselves apart, yet a big draw on pay in Vegas and on pay-per-view is the event of two human men literally beating each other’s brains out. We know that an American icon, Muhammad Ali, is now suffering with Parkinson’s that many in the medical community believe was exacerbated by his skull being pummeled for no greater cause than our entertainment and distraction.
That’s why I say that the question of what we want from sports is ironically delicate, because so often the sports themselves are not delicate. And even when the play actions themselves are not inherently violent, many professional sports events feature fighting and punching by team members that has become passé. Watching the Masters Golf Tournament last weekend, I wondered what kept professional golfers from taking a swing at each other. I mean, come on… everybody else is doing it. No, really, Tiger… the contemporary definition for “professional sport” means players pound on each other.
These conditions or expectations of professional sports exist, yet we are shocked when fans stoked on beer (or more accurately stadium beer profits) and the emotional steam generated when large crowds gather for competition decide to vent their pent-up violence in the parking lot. Ladies and gentlemen, I would humbly offer that we can’t have it both ways.
Consider for just a moment the cultural parallel in our love of gun violence served-up in our corporate-produced entertainments, followed by our surprise and sadness when our children demonstrate they have learned to resolve their conflicts with easily obtained hand guns. We throw up our hands when young people shoot each other to death, then we go back in the house and turn on a box that provides gun resolutions to “drama” around the clock, seven days a week.
That we might be incubating violence with the entertainment formats commonly referred to as “professional sports” certainly doesn’t lessen the tragedy of a young man beaten into a coma because he dared to wear rival team apparel to Dodger Stadium. But because the event brings shame to Los Angeles we have an obligation after such a tragedy to consider exactly what it is we want “sports” to do for us.
One thing we want sports to do is make money. It might be, at the end of the day, all that we want sports to do although this column has acknowledged that a sense of place and identification can ensue when citizens take pride in their city’s home teams. No one is out to take away anything that can legitimately be called fun that also holds people and society together. Although, while I don’t have the numbers, my guess would be that there have been fewer beatings at Disneyland than at Los Angeles sports events.
In her April 9 column, Sandy Banks reminded LA Times readers that the Raiders used to attract a sort of “outlaw crowd” to the Coliseum. Not having lived here back in the day it’s still my understanding that, for the most part, nobody was sorry to see the Raiders and the irritating Al Davis leave Los Angeles. Banks wonders if maybe there’s a kind of torch being passed, in that the old Raiders drew “hoodlums” to “a team with an outsize rogue persona” and that possibly the Dodgers “seem to have tapped that vein.” Banks, in reaching for causes, suggests that elements such as the swagger of former Dodger Manny Ramirez may have played a role.
I would counter that some “professional sports” teams simply have more thugs and wanna-be thugs than others. The arrest records for professional football players in the last five to ten years may speak to many things; excellence in athletic performance is not one of them. Barry Bonds has been in court now for using steroids, then again for lying about using steroids. That something like that is now the top story in baseball strongly suggests that we’ve drifted and that the entertainment product has defects.
Oddly enough in all this, the overtly physical entertainment platform known as professional wrestling has come full circle. “Wrestling” now fully admits it’s a fake show with stories told by beefy actors of varying ability, although some of those actors have done well in movies and television. Maybe baseball and football could look at a similar retooling of their performers. Maybe Barry Bonds isn’t really an arrogant drug-using jerk; he’s just a guy playing one. Maybe “professional athletes” busted with guns and drugs aren’t really thug losers with soft educational backgrounds, they’re just pretending to be those mooks.
Would losing the pretense that the “kick your ass” energy in professional sports is real help alleviate the adrenaline pumping resulting in stadium violence? Maybe, if we can prove it’s not real. Meanwhile, I note that NASCAR is struggling because a sport featuring large automobiles driving around in a circle burning foreign oil when public schools lack money for books is literally and figuratively running out of gas. It’s a long shot, but… perhaps wisdom is slowly dampening some of our lesser impulses.
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