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OBITER DICTA EX CATHEDRA
Vannevar Bush
December 01, 1958
Or, some passing remarks from the halls of science by a wise and witty man who proves that the ivory tower has a view—including a view of sports. And so we introduce Dr. Vannevar Bush, spectator sports expert, chairman of the corporation of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leader of scientists—and a host of his colleagues, whose interests, as shown here, range from boxing through sailing to driving hot cars
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December 01, 1958

Obiter Dicta Ex Cathedra

Or, some passing remarks from the halls of science by a wise and witty man who proves that the ivory tower has a view—including a view of sports. And so we introduce Dr. Vannevar Bush, spectator sports expert, chairman of the corporation of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leader of scientists—and a host of his colleagues, whose interests, as shown here, range from boxing through sailing to driving hot cars

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This is a treatise on sport, written by an expert. It contains numerous suggestions for improvement which will no doubt be welcomed by those who operate the system. However, anticipating that questions might be raised, let us first define sport and state what constitutes an expert.

For the purposes of this treatise, sport is defined as a system of propelling a ball or similar projectile for the edification of a mass audience. Thus court tennis, which is an amusement and a form of exercise, is excluded from the definition since no one has discovered how to mount a TV camera so as to view it. So is billiards, since the audience which enjoys watching a master make ivory balls behave is not mass. About every other way of causing a sphere or spheroid to move through space by throwing, carrying or hitting it with a stick or other form of bat comes in. To interest a mass audience, there needs to be present also a contest, that is, opposing individuals or groups with sharply conflicting interests in the progress of the propelled object.

Now, how do I qualify as an expert? This is simple. I once had my picture in the papers in a prominent position, and this undoubtedly qualifies me to speak with authority. True, the reason for my picture was somewhat remote from sport, but that does not really matter. I am in the same position as Winston Churchill, who was, during the war, an expert on the application of science to weapons (although I admit he was somewhat better known to the public). I have another qualification. In college, I earned my letter in a major sport, and that confers the privilege of pontificating on sport for life. In case anyone looks up the records, I got that letter as a manager, but there was a special distinction. I managed the team that bent Eisenhower's knee. So I write without modesty or apology.

In Russia, sport as we have defined it is a state program for furthering national pride and patriotism, and it works. Here, under our free-enterprise system, it is a means for making money. Whether sport is formally a business like other businesses is in doubt. At present, the Supreme Court says that if the propelled object is hollow and oblate, then it is, but if it is spherical and solid, it is not. It certainly differs from most businesses in various ways. For one thing, some of the employees get paid and some do not, this being a relic of the old apprentice and guild systems of England. For another, there is a form of serfdom involved, under which the performers are bought and sold. This is not in conflict with the constitutional provisions against slavery since the performer can always quit—if he does not mind sacrificing his professional skills—and start a restaurant.

It will be noted that wrestling and boxing are left out of the definition, since no projectile is involved. Anyone who thinks that wrestling is a sport is entitled to make his own definition. As to boxing, I would be inclined to alter definitions and include it, if the entrepreneurs of that system would make a couple of simple modifications. First, I would attach a belt and rope to each of these employees, so that they could reach one another readily, but not embrace. Second, I would fire the judges and award the prize money to the contestant who longest kept his rope stretched taut.

There are still amateurs in sport. An amateur is a gentleman, and a gentleman is a man who does not need to work for a living. This, of course, applies only when we consider sport under the present definition. There are other kinds of gentlemen elsewhere. There are also amateurs who do not choose to perform before TV cameras and who actually play games for the fun of it. There used to be a great hassle about amateurs in football, but it is rapidly becoming resolved under the apprentice system. By this system, a hot performer is required to perform without compensation for several years and then is paid adequately if he qualifies for the big time. There is some problem left in the case of apprentices who are impecunious and have to eat, but ingenious alumni groups find ways around this impasse. Then, too, lots of apprentices get a lift out of roaring stands and do not seem to care if they do not share in the gate receipts, which, incidentally, sometimes amount to quite a sum of money. And there remain, I am told, contestants who still regard the spectacle as a game rather than a business. Of course, the problem would be simpler if the sport business were made entirely independent of the colleges, which may be the ultimate solution, since college presidents and trustees sometimes have strange ideas regarding business.

In tennis the problem is neatly solved by having a czar. He just states who is amateur and who is professional. It is easy enough for the individual player to change his status in one direction—for example by getting a man in the business to pick up a dinner check—but it is impossible to move the other way. This keeps outstanding performers from hiding their light under a bushel, where the great mass audiences will not have a proper opportunity to witness their skill. It is a sheer loss to business, of course, when a hot tennis player is limited in the extent to which he can attract cash customers to oscillate their necks to follow the ball.

But it is important to get down to the matter of advice.

It seems to me that the managers of the business of sport have lost sight of the real objective, which is to satisfy the mass audience and keep them coming and paying. An essential ingredient is that the customers shall be convinced that the contest is intense and real; for example, that it is being played by the contestants and not by the officials. There are all sorts of crudities in this regard in present practice in the sports industry.

Imagine, let us say, that Pugwash College is manfully carrying the football down the field. By fine teamwork and intense concentration, it is barely able to make 10 yards in four tries, and it has marched this way for 50 yards while the tension in the stands mounts steadily. Then a zebra-shirted officer throws his dustcloth on the ground, picks up the ball, moves it back 15 yards, and the drive is over. He looks intently at the TV camera and slices at his calf with his hand. This means that he has seen a case of clipping. As near as I can make out, this term means that a Pugwash player, in attempting to interfere with the progress of an opponent, has made violent contact with him below the midsection, and more than eight points abaft the bow. The stands subside, and 800 cynical customers remark, "The hell with this," to their neighbors. The reason for this cynicism is the belief, no doubt mistaken, that the official has seen a dozen cases of contact abaft the bow, and has chosen to pick on this one so that the stands will not forget that it is he who is running the show.

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