The mighty pulpwood forests of the North are being clear-cut to make paper, and octopuses are being netted by the millions for the great inking fleets of the Indian Ocean, all so American television critics can write a few more column inches this dim summer on the popularity of such "reality" programs as Big Brother, Survivor and The Real World. Even at such a daunting cost, no one has yet explained why the "reality" of Survivor's tribal council looks so much like the "reality" of the pupu buffet at Trader Vic's. More important for sports fans than this new intrusion of reality into television, however, is our persistent confusion of television with reality.
Been to a major league ballpark lately? Except for being much more expensive, it's just like watching baseball on TV in the comfort of your 60,000-seat rumpus room! It's like appearing as an extra on American Bandstand). It's like being sentenced to forced labor in Uncle Mao's Wacky-DiscoFunTime TV Theme Park and Commercial Re-Education Camp!
In the manner of the NHL and the NBA, baseball has decided to let no game go unmediated; no inning, no at bat, no single moment is allowed to pass without a deafening infusion of prerecorded enthusiasm. Baseball no longer sees game play as sufficient to hold our shattered attention; rather, the game simply provides the excuse for a series of inescapable marketing and advertainment opportunities. It is nine innings' worth of music cues and videotape rolls, a cross-promotional platform from which a captive audience can be efficiently inoculated with the best brand names. Between the big-screen trivia games and the big-screen, home-team-only replays (as lopsided as a Politburo show trial) and the big-screen commercials and the big-screen sneaker races and the big-screen cutaways of overserved burly girls shaking what appears to be a groove thing (only way larger) and the big-screen instructions to CHEER! or SHOUT! or STAMP YOUR FEET!, each introduced by an eight-bar guitar break from 1975's most popular three-chord, who-left-the-doob'-in-my-dad's-Buick?, leotard-speed-metal anthems, it's hard to remember why you came out to the ballpark in the first place.
Operating on the assumption that even though we've paid 12 or 26 or 48 or 195 dollars for a seat, we're apt to wander off like idiot children if things go quiet even for a second, live professional sports now seek to simulate the seamless, streaming content of television or the Internet. Forget about turning to your kids and remarking on that dandy 6-4-3 double play; they can't hear you because it's dance time! From loudspeakers the size of the cathedral at Chartres comes the news that Y.M.C.A. isn't the homo-facetious send-up the Village People thought it was, but an unironic crowd pleaser that gets everybody on their feet! Wanna go to the dollar dance at a Bugtussle wedding, but don't have a cousin named Cletis with a recessive pellagra gene? Sit tight! Here comes that frenetic remix of Cotton Eyed Joel In case you can't get enough of this crap, it's all available now with your new subscription to SI! On a gift CD we inelegantly refer to as "crowd-pumping arena music!"
When did we all decide that it was okey-dokey to co-opt every form of human experience—whether going to a game or riding an elevator or standing in the checkout line—into a theater of mandatory advertising? When did we all agree to give up our rights as ticket holders or fans or citizens and reduce ourselves instead to a set of deliverable bloodshot eyeballs? Did I miss a meeting? Did we vote?
If so, is it too late to vote Gary Glitter off the island? How about Rick Derringer? Lynyrd Skynyrd? Just asking.