Marching through the why of professional sport


The reason(s) I still pay attention to professional sports are few. I have a strong belief that as soon as your prefrontal cortex fully develops and 7-eleven ceases to become your eatery of choice, the veil is lifted from society’s shockingly single-dimension approach to the professional athlete.

You don’t necessarily have to outgrow sport any more than you have to outgrow the funny papers. And I suppose there is some renewal in the ritual of watching your own progeny watch their generation’s heroes soar far above the backboard or fly mightily, flipping into the end zone; allowing the next in line see first-hand that sometimes the impossible can happen and maybe, just maybe, if they apply a little bit of that to their life, they won’t be staring at double screens waiting till 10 am to find out if there are any donuts leftover from the management meeting.

But March always makes me question the why of it all.

NBA players are busy pressing the snooze button on the regular season as they line up for the curiously long slog through the summer playoffs. Refunds for all single-game ticket holders should be handed out each time a point guard lets the inbounds ball dribble to a roll, nearly causing a half court violation, reluctantly then plucks it from his franchise’s giant emblem, looks to his right, then his left, bounces a pass toward his two guard with the conviction of a DMV worker striding back to his chair after a bathroom break and into the waiting hands of his opponent. The defender, shuffling at walking-into-a-dark-movie-theater-speed, barely turned his shoulder to see the orb coming at him with a velocity so slow he could make out the “J.” in David Stern’s signature. He reluctantly palms the ball for a cruise across mid-court, undefended, and for two uncontested.

Major League Baseball is priming the pump in warmer climates. Whether it’s a case of life having been lived better or remembered better, Spring Training truly is different than it was a decade ago. The game hasn’t changed. If anything, starters get less time and the Moonlight Grahams of the world, wearing lucky jersey number 97 are able to give a journeyman pitcher a wink and a nudge and poke a slow-roller towards short, barely getting beaten with the throw and cruising with tarmac taxi speed back to the dugout to make plans for the evening. The event which used to act as buffer for the old duffers between donating white balls to the rolling cacti fields from the impossibly green stretches of desert scape and that night’s steak dinner — anything to avoid going home to see the same face that’s greeted him for five decades and the flat screen she has taken as her new companion, is now WalMartized. The snowed-in masses of the Midwest gather in the brand-new-style small-mall-stadium-on-steroids winter playgrounds of the Indians and the Cubs, creating facsimile experiences for the winterized and forlorn fan base. The new Spring Training includes a sneak peek at all the merch shipped from the bloody finger’d masses of post-rural, black river industrial China. The hat, $48. The souvenir shirt, $37. Even the American-made goods, can of Bud, $10, now feature a prime-time price point. Oh, but to be awash in the sun again, sitting on a blanket in the far corner of the outfield lawn, just steps away from the restroom which doesn’t queue up till the 7th. Nirvana.

Thanks to the guy sitting next to me streaming four games at once like a going-broke bookie, the NCAA tournament will usurp $20 billion of our coworkers’ productivity starting next week. Perhaps it’s just the attempt to quench the parched throat that was left sandpaper by the final playoff-free BCS campaign. Or maybe we all started to believe, somehow, that the Super Bowl fix is, in fact, on. “Say it ain’t so, Sherman.” Or maybe it’s just been 363 days since we last clicked in on CBS Sports and what the fuck is my password again(?!). Because all the pre-GoToMeeting pauses have been spent desperately watching NFL coverage of the combine, which, if we didn’t know better, resembles more pandering to the league’s ever-lower IQ’d base. The same league run by a vitriolic oligarch who banks $40 million a year while allowing every effective drug in the book (and some that aren’t) into his players’ bodies to plump them up like prized steer. Marijuana, the only performance decelerator and a mainstay to treat former players’ life-threatening ailments, is banned.

The same league, hellbent on protecting nonprofit (tax-free) status for a megalocorporation which generates $10 billion a year in revenue, including a heady windfall every October for profiting off of pink cancer wear. The same league which ensures its owners, most of whom are one seersucker suit and cigarette with holder away from enjoying every privileged and cultivated fine finish of a plantation owner — the only difference is Kraft and Jones and Mara sell the naming rights to their compounds — get a fresh batch of flesh. The league showcases this true knack for turning men of free will into indentured servants during its very harnessed-and-shackled coverage of the cattle-ranking combines; even watching a snippet of the testing and analysis lets a fan know truly our freedom is contorted by another’s definition of it.

So the question: Is professional sport how we live it or how we remember it? Was professional sport something pure once? A father and son having a catch on a field built on a mowed-under cornfield. Or is that just a work of fiction, something we conjured from the great beyond to get us through our own everyday? Are the throws and the catches and the goals and the defeat just a reflection of our better selves, even at our worst? Or do we aspire to cheer for failure, as we’re failures ourselves for having to cheer instead of rising above the concession stands and the speculation to participate and play?

Or is March just something very different than all that? A time to take a step back and question and wonder and ponder over making-lunch plans: What 5-12 upsets do I take this year?