Professional hockey was the sport in which the perils and deficiencies of institutionalism were most dramatically displayed this year. The institution that has taken over the management of this Canadian sport is the National (more accurately the International, since it is as much an American as a Canadian enterprise) Hockey League. The NHL has evolved along the same institutional lines as professional baseball and football. As the game became more stylized, the talent was diluted. Meanwhile, extravagant claims were advanced by the institution as to the superb quality of the game and players. At the same time, the NHL was graveled by the fact that there was something in existence called the world hockey championship, a competition between amateurs. Canadian amateurs did not win this title, which usually went to the Russians. Finally chauvinism overcame institutional good sense: the NHL agreed to play the Russians.
(Having ceased to be instruments, the most durable institutions are those that successfully stave off competition with rivals who are still in the instrument stage. Major league baseball bureaucrats should avoid going into athletic battle with Cuba or Japan. No matter what the provocation, the safest course—which is always the best for institutions—is to go on calling the October games the World Series. All catcalls and rude noises from abroad must be ignored.)
The NHL prepared for its showdown with Russia in traditional institutional fashion. First, it cleansed its ranks of heretics. Several of the best Canadian hockey players (at least according to previous NHL press releases) were excommunicated from the engagingly misnamed Team Canada for having trafficked with rival business organizations. Then the faithful were gathered for a few weeks of training. Any longer or more serious preparation was considered unnecessary and uncool, since these were the best hockey players in the world.
The results tend to bear out the notion that when a mature, affluent institution meets a full-fledged instrument, the former is likely to be deeply surprised if not humiliated. The Canadians finally beat the Russians in the series (the Czechs and Swedes proved thorny, too), but afterward no one was saying a word about the clear superiority of Canadian hockey. The vincibility of the NHL had been amply demonstrated.
Aging institutions are seldom able or inclined to reform themselves. However, they are not defenseless. What they can do is annex—institutionalize—rivals and, so to speak, de-fang them (e.g., the absorption of the American Football League by the National). Things are already moving in this direction in hockey. NHL owners are offering to pay millions of dollars for the services of the better Russian hockey players and there is even way-out talk of bringing some kind of professional hockey franchise to Moscow. If these deals should be consummated, it is almost certain that the quality of Russian and NHL hockey will soon be on a par.
There are reasons why sporting institutions (dynasties, the press used to call them) are more fragile than non-sporting ones. For one thing, challenge is implicit in sport. Stubborn and crafty bureaucrats can sometimes delay confrontations, but inevitably they are caught, as the NHL was this summer, in a situation where they meet an instrument under competitive conditions. Secondly, while the need for sport seems to be constant and universal with our species, the need for any particular game is peripheral. Therefore, while any sport can be rather easily institutionalized, no given sport is sufficiently substantial and necessary—in the way education, religion and war are necessary—to provide a firm foundation for a lasting institution. If one sporting institution collapses, there are always replacements, the possible modes of play being as large as the human imagination. This is a comforting thought for those who need and enjoy sport.
This year the biggest American winner was Bobby Fischer. However, it was one of the ironies of this cruel season that his capture of an honest-to-God world championship did not give the satisfaction it might have. In fact, Fischer was such a bad-acting winner that many Americans were openly rooting for his opponent, Boris Spassky, who was not only a foreigner but a Russian.
A good American winner is a beautiful, noble creature: white, clean-cut, middle-class. In his competitive years, Babe Ruth was cast as a boyish hot-dog eater, and Jack Dempsey was transformed into a suitable companion for Dink Stover. What with all the pushy blacks, it has also been necessary to create an honorary black category for people like Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Willie Mays. The ideal American winner is gregarious, charming and casual. He accomplishes his athletic feats with a certain negligence, does not strain or grunt, and wins because he is cooler, better endowed and just plain gooder than other folks. These heroes do not stoop to politicking to secure an advantage before they go out to play and do not bicker about rules. They accept unfair handicaps and bad decisions with a grin, then just turn on all that American power and win. Most of them sign lucrative contracts with some professional sporting institution, but they let us know through their agents that the money is more a matter of principle, a tribute to their talent, and that they live to play, not play to live. Eventually they marry a prom queen, produce a pair of handsome children and settle down to become responsible noncontroversial celebrities—pushers of beer, deodorants, drug-abuse programs, etc. They are always ready to tell a service or boys club what sport has done for them.
Bobby Fischer did not come close to filling this bill. He was a scrawny, unattractive man with an arrogant, insolent face. He acted even less like a true American winner. If he approximated any image, it was the American picture of a heavy—a sneaky, foreign winner. Before the championship he complained, bullied, threatened, boasted, bragged and politicked from hell to breakfast trying to gouge every possible advantage for himself. When play commenced he had temper tantrums, abused his opponent, insulted officials and was rude to the media and spectators. When he won, he made it plain that he succeeded because he was a superior chess player, not the representative of a superior institution or country. While all of this was going on, Spassky, representing the mighty institution of Russian chess, respected all the forms and made all the right and dignified moves, except on the chessboard. The analogy is somewhat strained because he is an individual, but Fischer came on like an instrument. He was obviously intent upon accomplishing a definite objective, played ferociously and did not seem to give a damn what traditions or persons he trampled on in reaching his goal.