Another case of something good being capitalized to death
Welp, the New York Jets did what the New York Jets have done pretty much my entire life…they once again found a way to end their season before the first real snowfall in the northeast. Just absolute nadir kings; their greatest talent is a Shakespearean knack for inventing creative landscapes of tragedy on the football field.
If you read that last sentence and are thinking “Jesus, is he just going to talk about football?” No. Not exactly. Kinda.
Football is just another sport, albeit one of the world’s most popular (especially if we’re not talking about American Football, though in this case, assume I’m not being European when I say football). Sports have some pretty ancient, pre-antiquity roots…first nations played an early, brutal form of lacrosse in place of fighting wars. Cave paintings in France depict wrestlers dating back to around 15,000 BCE. The Egyptians were famous for their collection of sports that included swimming, long jump, archery, even an early form of hockey. And those games pre-dated the Greek Olympics by around 1500 years.
There was a practical reason for sport back in those early days of civilization, they often served to train men to go out in the world and do typical, patriarchal man stuff. The fastest swimmers would wind up fishing on boats. The fastest runners would find themselves chasing animals. The men who could lift the most would find themselves in the army, and the most capable leaders in team sports would ascend to leading governments and armies.
It was a crude system, but it did allow for ranked measure of athletic ability. Considering the immense need for capable, organized physical labor, it makes sense they’d need a gamified system for sorting out the brutes and motivating them to do something productive with their abilities.
It was and is fun as hell to watch. There’s something impressive about watching another person do something you can’t do, it can trigger a whole swarm of complex emotions ranging from jealousy to empathy. There’s a biological, animalistic pull towards these characters of great athletic ability: The old, “men want to be them, women want to be with them” schtick. There’s a reason folks are saying Taylor finally found someone “on her level” in Travis Kelce, and that subsection of the social contract with our sports stars is just as ancient as the games themselves.
The fine print on that contract has always been fairly brutal, though. The chances of being a legendary, Brady-level champion in any given sport are pretty slim, we maybe get a few dozen stars like that in a generation. Most are destined to get maimed on the field of battle, carted off like the gladiators two millennia before them.
Still, there’s got to be something to the idea of teaching young people about teamwork, sportsmanship, healthy competition, and giving it your best, right? Sure. I suppose. Giving people an outlet for their aggressive tendencies isn’t the worst thing in the world either, for the players or the fans.
If we could force countries to send their best soldiers into a giant, life or death, Squid Games competition to settle their disputes, I feel like we’d probably avoid a lot of civilian casualties. What is war if not a series of strategic moves of force meant to crush an opponent from another geographic area? Is that not exactly what we’re emulating when the Red Sox and Yankees play each other?
It’s probably a pipe dream to imagine a world where war is replaced by war games, though you know shit’s kinda messed up when you’re fantasizing about Ender’s Game being more preferable than our current endgame.
Sports will not be supplanting wars anytime soon though, and the monied interests that control these leagues are just fine with that. America’s desire for bloodlust in their sport has some pretty funky boundaries that the commissioners, owners, players, and broadcasters have all learned to balance; in most instances they’ve found near-perfect stasis between how much blood and gore the audience wants and the kinds of brands that can stomach that kind of entertainment.
It’s why Monster Energy sponsors UFC, and why Rolex sponsors the US Open. The NFL is constantly trying to tweak it’s rules and safety protocols to find this middle path…too loose and people start getting disgusted by a barrage of snapped tendons and violent fractures, too restrictive and people get disgusted by how boring the game feels. The competition isn’t always enough…some of us need something that feels life or death thrown in the mix before we can really get invested. It’s messed up.
The sponsors are ultimate what make professional sports so high stakes, the dollars spent on media adjacent to sports is staggering. Think about Super Bowl commercials, stadium naming rights, endorsements, merchandising, broadcast rights, etc. Sport, like Black Friday itself, sits in that strange intersection between religious fervor, nationalist pride, and capitalist splendor.
Sport steals so much from religion, it’s kind of wild. Hall of Famers are just saints. Sundays are for football. If you’re attending services, expect to be given alcohol. There are hymns and fight songs, mascots meant to personify all the human suffering felt in the pews, and even a weird tradition around dumping water on people. There are miracles! Faith! David and Goliath archetypes! The former president of NYU, John Sexton, used to teach a legendary course to freshmen called “Baseball as a Road to God,” a topic he eventually turned into a book and then toured on extensively. It’s pretty good, conceptually, but save yourself the tuition and watch his spiel for free here.
I don’t need to explain the nationalist part of sports, do I? Teams are associated with cities, usually we root for teams as a localized community against another localized community…it’s pretty clean. If you want to tie something else to the nationalism, remember that the US Department of Defense PAYS most of the major sporting leagues for all those veteran giveaways, flyovers, and color guards. It’s great recruiting; every kid who wants to play pro ball but just isn’t good enough can find a spot on a team at Fort Pendleton. You get it.
Which leaves the worst for last…the capitalism of it all. I know I said sports were always kind of luxurious if you were a super star, but the floor has never been particularly comfortable or stable. Until recently, baseball players were either drunks (in the early days), coked up (in the glory days), or roided out (in the Clinton/Bush Years). Most did not make great money, they played for love of the game (and because they were mostly unemployable doing anything else).
It was an ignoble pursuit at times, but the game was hugely popular with fans. It made lots of money for the owners and the league. The players knew the fans were coming for them, and they fought for better wages and protections. Some owners indigently believed it was their team; they didn’t need the players or even the city they were in (see the Giants and the Dodgers moving to the west coast).
The players eventually unionized, went on a couple of strikes, and eventually started getting decent contracts and healthcare and retirement plans. And helmets! It was around all this upswing that the anti-union movements started in the 80s, the leagues were mostly unscathed but it unleashed a tidal wave of capital optimizations across sports franchises. That’s what we’re living with now.
The leagues have built their corporate fortresses out of other corporate interests. Beverage companies would die without sports, from water to soda to Gatorade to beer. Car companies spend more money on sports ads than any other channel. So do insurance companies. Aramark does catering for 11 different NFL stadiums. Ticketmaster controls ticketing (and often parking, too). Stadiums once named for landmarks or luminaries…Lambeau Field, The Meadowlands, Arrowhead Stadium…gave way to names like CitiField, MetLife Stadium, and GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Charming. New Balance, Nike, Lids, and Under Armor didn’t mean anything to anyone until after the mid-80s, these brands don’t exist without the economic engine that sports fandom can provide.
But in the end, sports exist because we just like to compete. It’s literal monkey games seeing who can jump the furthest or lift the biggest rock. We feel a sense of deep, self-identifying pride when the people from our area wearing our colors beat the people from that other area in the other colors. We shouldn’t shy away from these aspects of organized sport.
But the profit wringing on $200 jerseys? The $20 stadium beer? Gouging on ticket service fees? That’s the shit that makes sports hard to bear. I’d rather go out back and play two hand touch than watch a bunch of college kids play pro bono ball for a millionaire state employee coach while the NCAA makes billions.
And that’s only partially true. I still (and will always) bleed green and white, blue and orange. I just wish the fans and players weren’t being bled dry at the same time.
Until the next one.