NELSON: Why sports? Forgive me, but I think there are more meaningful areas of study.
PROF: Forgive me, Mr. Nelson, but you sound a lot like the naysayers at the turn of the century who, still clinging to their Puritan roots, dismissed sports as a waste of time and an "expression of the barbarian temperament." Nevertheless, the growth of the "devil's diversions" was such that it prompted scholars like Jacques Barzun to observe, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."
In fact, one measure of the impact of sports on our culture is its acceptance in the last decade as a field of serious study by academicians. In debunking TV's tendency to treat sports as show biz, philosopher Michael Novak says, "Sports are far more serious than the dramatic arts, much closer to primal symbols, metaphors and acts, much more ancient and frightening. Sports are mysteries of youth and aging, perfect action and decay, fortune and misfortune, strategy and contingency. Sports are rituals concerning human survival on this planet: liturgical enactments of animal perfection and the struggles of the human spirit to prevail."
Effusive as that may sound, English Professor Neil D. Isaacs takes the sports-as-a-metaphor-for-life theme one giant step further. In his recent book Jock Culture, U.S.A.
, he contends, "Intellectually and philosphically, emotionally and psychologically, sexually and physically, sport governs our lives." Then, catching his breath, he concludes, "We must go further and recognize that our system as a whole has become, that the U.S.A. is, a jockocracy."
NELSON: Pete Rose for President!
PROF: Hear, hear! But would he take the $625,000 pay cut? Profundities aside, suffice it to say that sports have become a pervasive force in our society. Which brings us to today's game plan: discussing the most significant trends in sports over the past 25 years. We will confine ourselves to five. Pencils ready:
2. The Wide, Wide World of TV
3. Of Money and Men
4. The Bold, the Black and the Beautiful
5. Participant Sports, or Everybody into the Pool
Lounging on his patio in 1954, no American could have envisioned the nuclear-like explosion in sports that was building just over the horizon. By then, the long swing from an agrarian to an urban society was solidified and sports were bristling with new energy. Along the way, pastimes that once were pursued in a leisurely, limited way by farm families became a passionate release for the masses.
Teams representing various factories, social clubs and towns developed intense rivalries. Skilled players were favored to the exclusion of the average. The crowds of wildly partisan fans grew. And winning became important. Branch Rickey, too much of a Puritan to attend Sunday games, described the ideal Dodger player as one who "will break both your legs if you happen to be standing in his path to second base." Thus, if you're keeping score—and you'd better be—were born three phenomena: the star system, mass spectatorship and the win-at-all-costs mentality.
Against this backdrop, Patio Man emerged from the postwar recovery with more mobility, more money and more—much, much more—leisure time than ever. The economy in 1954 was perking along at record levels for a peacetime year. The 60-hour work week of 1900 was down to 40 hours. And the profit motive was up, particularly in the sporting-goods business, which registered record sales of $481 million. In effect, Ike's State of the Union Address that year was "C'mon America, tee up." A question.