Johnny America


To­ward a So­ci­ol­o­gy of the Sport Spec­ta­tor: A Rare and Patent­ed Ar­gu­ment (Part Two of Three)


[ A con­tin­u­a­tion of Part One ]

Now, it seems, the prob­lem has been solved. Ca­ble tele­vi­sion is now be­ing piped in­to the com­mon room — watch­ing it, I imag­ine, will be­come one of the com­mon ac­tiv­i­ties com­mon­ly car­ried out by all of us, in com­mon, in that room — and in any event with it one can eas­i­ly ig­nored any­one else who might al­ready be there. ESPN is the net­work that is most rel­e­vant to this con­ver­sa­tion, of course, and as far as a so­ci­ol­o­gy of the sport spec­ta­tor goes — think­ing of Adorno — and as far as this ques­tion of whether or not now, more than thir­ty years af­ter his es­say called “Free Time,” which may or may not have been an es­say on free time — the ti­tle alone cer­tain­ly does not en­sure that it was — we still lack a so­ci­ol­o­gy of the sport spec­ta­tor goes, I would have to say that the very pres­ence of ESPN re­sponds in the neg­a­tive. I have seen it be­fore: my fa­ther, some years ago, in­stalled ca­ble tele­vi­sion in the house I grew up in and now, when I go home, in­stead of sim­ply star­ing in­to the void that is both that which is at the cen­ter of my ex­is­tence and that which con­sti­tutes its past, I tend to watch it, and based on that ex­pe­ri­ence — to say noth­ing of my ex­pe­ri­ences since Tues­day — I would sug­gest that, re­al­ly, ESPN is a so­ci­ol­o­gy of the sport spec­ta­tor. Or, at the very least, it’s very close. It is so close that to make ESPN in­to a com­plete or com­plet­ed so­ci­ol­o­gy of the sport spec­ta­tor, one would not so much have to an­a­lyze it as, sim­ply, to doc­u­ment it. A care­ful, sci­en­tif­ic doc­u­men­ta­tion of ESPN would be that in­ci­sive so­ci­ol­o­gy of the sport spec­ta­tor the ab­sence of which Adorno did not rec­ti­fy but rather, sim­ply, in­di­cat­ed. It was a gen­er­ous move on his part — it gave the rest of us some­thing to do, I sup­pose — but al­so, per­haps, it is the on­ly way one can ever be­gin to end a piece of writ­ing: by point­ing to that which still needs to be written.

When I am home, in ad­di­tion to avoid­ing any con­fronta­tions with the void that is both at the cen­ter of my ex­is­tence and con­sti­tutes its past by watch­ing tele­vi­sion — sports in par­tic­u­lar, and al­most ex­clu­sive­ly — I play a game with my fa­ther called piss poor. It is a game that we our­selves have in­vent­ed dur­ing the long stretch­es of time that I tend to spend there — al­ways mo­ment of tran­si­tion be­tween one part of the year and the next — with noth­ing to do, and the rules of en­gage­ment are, es­sen­tial­ly, as fol­lows: I sit in a chair at the far end of the din­ing room, in front of a cab­i­net that is front­ed by, my moth­er says, a valu­able lead­ed glass door, and my fa­ther sits in his chair at the far op­po­site end of the liv­ing room, which is con­tigu­ous with the din­ing room, sep­a­rat­ed on­ly by a low-hang­ing ceil­ing beam. There is noth­ing ter­ri­bly valu­able di­rect­ly be­hind my fa­ther, where he sits, but there are valu­able items near­by sit­ting on a shelf that serves the pur­pose of dis­play­ing os­ten­si­bly valu­able items: for ex­am­ple, a Steuben glass bowl that we in­her­it­ed from my father’s moth­er Ruth, and a piece of pot­tery from the Ma­ta Or­tiz pot­tery-mak­ing tribe in Mex­i­co; a clay rab­bi, paint­ed all in sil­ver, that my sis­ter made in sev­enth grade art class. In any case, the pres­ence of these valu­able and break­able ob­jects is es­sen­tial to the mood of the game — one of strained ex­pec­ta­tion — but not of­fi­cial­ly con­tained with­in its pa­ra­me­ters. The came is played with a ball called a Spaldeen, which is some­thing along the lines of an over­sized pink rack­et ball — but not quite as slip­pery as a rack­et ball — and which, to my knowl­edge, can on­ly be ac­quired at Down­er Hard­ware on Down­er Av­enue in Mil­wau­kee. It is es­sen­tial that the game be played with a Spaldeen, for no oth­er ball of­fers the cor­rect pro­por­tions of bounci­ness, slick­ness, and size. The game, then, is that we throw the ball back and forth to one an­oth­er on one bounce. The ball must not bounce more than once on its tra­jec­to­ry be­tween the two of us and it must not ar­rive on the fly, which is to say, with­out bounc­ing. The goal of the game, on the oth­er hand, is for the per­son to whom you have thrown the ball, on no more and no less than a sin­gle bounce, to fail to catch that ball. The pay­off, on yet an­oth­er hand, for achiev­ing that goal, is that you are then per­mit­ted to shout “piss poor!” in that person’s di­rec­tion, a de­nun­ci­a­tion that in fact fills the space of a tal­lied point. Speak­ing of tal­lies, it is al­so im­por­tant to note that no ex­act tal­ly is kept dur­ing this game, such that at the end there is no clear win­ner or los­er — an am­ple space for ar­gu­ments over who would or would not have been the win­ner or los­er if a tal­ly in­deed had been kept — such that ul­ti­mate­ly the best one can hope to gain from the com­pe­ti­tion is the sat­is­fac­tion — on each oc­ca­sion com­plete and re­newed — of call­ing “piss poor!” in the oth­er player’s di­rec­tion. Like base­ball, this game is reg­u­lat­ed by a zone of what might be called rea­son­able op­por­tu­ni­ty. The ball must pass through zone which gives the re­ceiv­er a rea­son­able op­por­tu­ni­ty to catch it. There is no um­pire and there are no pre­cise mea­sure­ments giv­en re­gard­ing this zone: it is, rather, a mat­ter of in­ter­pre­ta­tion and con­sen­sus, such that it, as well, pro­vides space for ar­gu­ment, and de­spite this re­mains fair­ly well-un­der­stood. There need be no mea­sure­ments and di­men­sions for two rea­son­able men play­ing with a ball to know what rea­son­ably could have been caught, and what could not pos­si­bly have been caught with­in reason.

This is the game, and the ques­tion at hand, then, is how one, giv­en these re­stric­tions — giv­en that the ball must bounce once and no more than once, and must pass through a zone, some­thing like the strike zone in base­ball, of rea­son­able op­por­tu­ni­ty for the re­ceiv­er to catch it — can pos­si­bly pre­vent the re­ceiv­er, his com­peti­tor, from catch­ing the ball. In the in­ter­est of ex­plain­ing this, I would like to in­clude, as ref­er­ence, with­out ex­plain­ing how I came to read it, the fol­low­ing pas­sage from a book by a man named Don­ald A. Nor­man called The De­sign of Every­day Things: “Con­sid­er how mis­takes might be made: by mis­match; by tak­ing the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and false­ly match­ing it with some­thing in the past. Al­though we are re­al­ly good at find­ing ex­am­ples from the past to match the present, these ex­am­ples are bi­ased to­ward the reg­u­lar­i­ties of the past or to­ward the unique, dis­crepant event…[That which] is nei­ther com­mon nor unique is sim­ply rare. We won’t deal well with it: we are apt to clas­si­fy the rare with ei­ther the com­mon or the unique, and ei­ther of these choic­es is wrong. The same pow­ers that make us so good at deal­ing with the com­mon and the unique lead to se­vere er­ror with the rare.” I think this might be the best for­mu­la for any analy­sis of the mech­a­nisms of sport, to say noth­ing of the so­ci­ol­o­gy that may or may not be lack­ing al­most forty years af­ter Adorno — the Adorno, that Adorno — sug­gest­ed that it was. In any sport­ing act, we have the of­fen­sive play­er and the de­fen­sive play­er; in fact, one might ar­gue that it is pre­cise­ly this re­la­tion­ship that cre­ates the sit­u­a­tion of sport. If this is the case, then we might say that the way sports works is that, in every in­stance, in or­der to be suc­cess­ful, the of­fen­sive play­er — and, for pur­pos­es of clar­i­ty, and be­cause in a sport like base­ball the poles are ef­fec­tive­ly re­versed, I’ll say here that we might al­so call the of­fen­sive play­er the “play­er who acts” and the de­fen­sive play­er “the play­er who re­acts” — must cre­ate in the de­fen­sive play­er an ex­pe­ri­ence of the rare, such that he makes a mis­take. So for in­stance: when I throw the ball on one bounce to my fa­ther, the rules of the game, al­though they are on­ly im­plied, de­ter­mine that it must pass through a high­ly re­strict­ed zone such that he is giv­en a rea­son­able op­por­tu­ni­ty to catch it. There­fore, if he fails to catch it, it can on­ly be be­cause he made a mis­take — not be­cause, for in­stance, I threw it to the oth­er side of the room. Ac­cord­ing to Nor­man, he will make a mis­take when he has an ex­pe­ri­ence of the rare — of that which ap­pears to him nei­ther as the com­mon event nor as an event that is clear­ly unique to the com­mon event, a clear de­vi­a­tion from the pat­tern, some­thing he will rec­og­nize im­me­di­ate­ly as un­rea­son­able, an event to which he need not re­act at all. It is a mat­ter of psy­chol­o­gy, then. It is al­ways a mat­ter of nei­ther do­ing that which your op­po­nent — the one who is re­act­ing — is ex­pect­ing you to do, nor do­ing that which is to­tal­ly oth­er than that which he is ex­pect­ing you to do. In piss poor, when you are on the of­fen­sive — that is to say, when you are the throw­er — you have ba­si­cal­ly five tools to work with: left spin, which, of course, caus­es the ball to spin to your left af­ter it bounces, and pass trav­el­ing to the left through the zone of rea­son­able op­por­tu­ni­ty; right spin, which, of course, pro­duces the op­po­site ef­fect; top spin, which will cause the ball to leap more quick­ly and ag­gres­sive­ly off of the floor than seems to match the speed at which it hits the floor; back spin, which, of course, will have the op­po­site ef­fect; and, fi­nal­ly, sim­ply a straight bounce, mod­i­fied by no spin whatsoever.

All of this, I sup­pose, might con­sti­tute some sort of an ex­pla­na­tion or even an analy­sis of sport, but a so­ci­ol­o­gy?

To­ward for­mu­lat­ing a so­ci­ol­o­gy, I would say that the ques­tion, per­haps, be­comes not how is the game played, but, rather, what makes the game worth play­ing? And to an­swer that ques­tion, I would re­turn to the pres­ence, near­by, of the sup­pos­ed­ly valu­able and ap­par­ent­ly break­able ob­jects, the lead­ed glass cab­i­netry and the trin­kets on the shelf. With­out them, the game would be the same, but it would be boring.

These, one might say, are the stakes.

[ Con­tin­ued in Part Three ]

Filed under Non-Fiction on February 3rd, 2006

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