Johnny America


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


[ A con­tin­u­a­tion. Part One and Part Two ]

A mat­ter of in­ter­est from the world of sport:

There is a bas­ket­ball play­er on the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincinnati’s bas­ket­ball team by the name of Ji­had Mo­hammed. I saw him play for the first time about a month ago, when I was at my par­ents’ house in Mil­wau­kee, and since that time I have been wrestling with my­self to find a way of trans­lat­ing the tone or tenor of that name in­to the ter­mi­nol­o­gy of an­oth­er re­li­gion. Cru­sad­ing Christ, for in­stance. But I feel some­how as though to cru­sade im­plies a sort of for­ward move­ment — a move­ment across ter­ri­to­ry, start­ing in one place and end­ing up in an­oth­er — where­as as Ji­had is some­thing more sta­t­ic, some­thing that takes in­to ac­count the whole all at once, and on those grounds I have con­sid­ered some­thing like In­qui­si­tion Christ, or, even, In­quisi­tor Christ, but the prob­lem with the In­qui­si­tion, as op­posed to a Ji­had, is the pow­er dy­nam­ic. An In­qui­si­tion seems to in­volve the struc­ture of pow­er as­sert­ing it­self by root­ing out and de­stroy­ing the im­pu­ri­ties in its own body — a body that is in­her­ent­ly pure but in­fect­ed, as it were, by that which pre­vents it from be­ing so — where­as a Ji­had, I think, im­plies some­thing more along the lines of a ris­ing up. It is pow­er it­self which is cor­rupt or im­pure in the Ji­had, while it is a pri­ori pure with the In­qui­si­tion. Be­yond that, al­though Christ and Mo­hammed are both cen­tral fig­ures in their re­spec­tive re­li­gions, there is the im­por­tant dif­fer­ence, this im­por­tant dif­fer­ence be­ing that Christ is pre­sent­ed as God him­self — the Tri­um, I’ve been told — where­as Mo­hammed is not. Per­haps we should try an­oth­er re­li­gion: Zion­ist Moses, for instance.

Per­haps we should sim­ply stand for a mo­ment in in­spired awe of such an awe­some, awe in­spir­ing name; per­haps we should make like queer the­o­rists and refuse to at­tempt to re­pro­duce it.

I was once a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona and have, in the years since, re­tained my af­fec­tion for its bas­ket­ball team. Last year, the start­ing line­up for that bas­ket­ball team in­clud­ed a guard by the name of Mustafa, an­oth­er guard by the name of Sal­im, a for­ward by the name of Has­san, and, fi­nal­ly, a sec­ond for­ward, an east­ern Eu­ro­pean, with the last name Radenovich.

This, then, was my joke last year: their start­ing line­up reads like a no-fly list. When I watched the first day of the NCAA tour­na­ment last year at my friend Jesse’s house — he had or­dered, as a sup­ple­ment to his Satel­lite Dish tele­vi­sion, the all-ac­cess tour­na­ment pass — it gar­nered a num­ber of chuck­les and even a full-blown laugh or two, all from Jesse him­self, since he was the on­ly oth­er per­son in the room.

Ev­i­dence in sup­port of my claim that peo­ple who are or de­sire to be vague­ly as­so­ci­at­ed with the aca­d­e­m­ic call Adorno’s es­say “Free Time” Adorno’s es­say on free time in the form of sen­tences tak­en from pieces of writ­ing turned up by an in­ter­net search on the words “free time” and “adorno”:

“Frank­furt School cur­mud­geon Theodor Adorno would say no. In his es­say on free time, Adorno makes the point that the ne­far­i­ous cul­ture in­dus­tries and cap­i­tal­ism have so tak­en over our lives that our “free” time is now high­ly con­struct­ed and its defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic is that we’re not working.”

“BTW, if you haven’t read Adorno’s es­say on free time you should.”

Ac­tu­al­ly, those are the on­ly two I could find — the rest con­tained ap­pro­pri­ate ref­er­ences to Adorno’s es­say, “Free Time” — but I would pre­fer to stand by my claim nonethe­less, in the hope that my in­sis­tence up­on re­fer­ring to it as “Free Time” as op­posed to “his es­say on free time” con­sti­tutes a writer­ly or even in­tel­lec­tu­al pos­ture that is nei­ther com­mon nor de­viant; but, rather, rare.

And, the last of these short lit­tle sec­tions, bits of text from the web­site for the ca­ble sports net­work ESPN, pri­mar­i­ly in the form of promises:

“Peja’s num­bers are down and his in­juries are up. But if he can re­gain any­where near his All-Star sta­tus he will be a big plus.”

“You’ll see. Lots of folks will be writ­ing the same about Sacramento’s Ge­off Petrie when Ron-Ron’s run with the Kings ends in rubble.”

“When the Lak­ers play the Nets on March 17, VC might want to come up with an­oth­er ‘in­jury’ so that Kobe doesn’t break Wilt’s oth­er record on him.”

We of­fer our pre­dic­tions and promis­es to gam­ble our au­thor­i­ty and le­git­i­ma­cy — we will win more or lose some of what we al­ready have — and we watch, I sup­pose, in or­der to find out what hap­pens. But if we are in­ter­est­ed in what Adorno him­self called a “so­ci­ol­o­gy of the sport spec­ta­tor,” then, to use my own for­mu­la­tion, the ques­tion be­comes not so much how or even why we watch, but rather what makes it worth watch­ing? Thorstein Ve­blen — who, like me, was born in Wis­con­sin — sug­gest­ed, in his book called A The­o­ry of the Leisure class — as op­posed to say­ing, for in­stance, “sug­gest­ed, in his the­o­ry of the leisure class” — that sports func­tion as a kind of link be­tween the ethics and aes­thet­ics of ex­ploit on which the leisure class as we know it to­day — as he knew it in his day, that is — is found­ed and the rather mas­sive and dif­fuse worka­day mid­dle class that it has since be­come, and, I would ven­ture, for the most part re­mains. Ath­let­ics, he wrote, had be­come a ri­val, in in­sti­tu­tions of high­er learn­ing — bas­tions of the leisure class — to the clas­sics them­selves, in­deed had “an ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage over the clas­sics for the pur­pose of leisure-class learn­ing, since suc­cess as an ath­lete pre­sumes, not on­ly a waste of time, but al­so a waste of mon­ey, as well as the pos­ses­sion of cer­tain high­ly unin­dus­tri­al ar­cha­ic traits of char­ac­ter and tem­pera­ment.” To be a fan in­stead of an ac­tu­al ath­lete, then, pre­sumes what Ve­blen shows is a typ­i­cal evo­lu­tion of leisure to­ward con­ser­va­tion and dis­place­ment, to­ward de­lay­ing and re­dis­trib­ut­ing one’s own leisure time. I am too busy to use my leisure time so, in­stead, these oth­er peo­ple — not sur­pris­ing­ly a large per­cent­age of them are mi­nori­ties and im­mi­grants, peo­ple from not mid­dle class but low­er class back­grounds, them­selves lack­ing in the re­sources to de­lay and re­dis­trib­ute their own leisure time, and peo­ple, there­fore, who there­fore use it — will use it for me. This comes much clos­er to for­mu­lat­ing a so­ci­ol­o­gy of the sport spec­ta­tor — and in­deed came be­fore Adorno’s es­say called, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly on, “Free Time” — but, I think, for all its in­sight, just miss­es the mark. Here is what I think: A sport­ing event, a game, aims to­ward an out­come as its fi­nal de­ter­mi­na­tion — one team, or play­er, will win, and the oth­er team, or play­er, will lose. This is the out­come. This, ath­letes and an­a­lysts will, false­ly, tell you (of­ten dur­ing the build-up to a com­pe­ti­tion of sig­nif­i­cance, or a sea­son of com­pe­ti­tion) is all that mat­ters: who wins and who los­es. But what de­ter­mines the out­come? The play­ers, of course, com­pet­ing with­in the pa­ra­me­ters of both the de­ter­mined field of play and the de­ter­mine rules of en­gage­ment. But what else? Can we ever say ex­act­ly what has de­ter­mined the out­come of, for ex­am­ple, a sport­ing com­pe­ti­tion, and what has had noth­ing to do with it? At some point, usu­al­ly in high school, one may learn that a but­ter­fly flaps its wings in Kansas and a hun­dred years lat­er a hur­ri­cane rips through a vil­lage in Chi­na. It is im­pos­si­ble to ever know what tiny mu­ta­tions or per­mu­ta­tions, which minis­cule in­ter­ven­tions, will turn out — even if it can nev­er be proven — to have proven de­ci­sive in the out­come. Even af­ter the fact, it is im­pos­si­ble to know. When I miss a game — and be­cause, un­til two days ago, I was not equipped with ei­ther ca­ble tele­vi­sion or, even, a tele­vi­sion an­ten­nae in my own apart­ment, I have missed a num­ber of games, even count­less games, to say noth­ing of the pick-up games and in­vent­ed games, for ex­am­ple piss poor, that I am miss­ing at every mo­ment, in every or any cor­ner of the world, some con­tigu­ous liv­ing room and din­ing room or dirt lot in a dis­tant land like Kenya — I can, lat­er, find out who won and who lost — even the pre­cise score of that de­ter­mi­na­tion — but I can nev­er know whether it would have been the same if I had seen it. To­day, as op­posed to the writer for the web­site for the ca­ble sports net­work ESPN, I might pre­dict, to a friend, or in a piece of writ­ing for pub­lic con­sump­tion, that Kobe Bryant will not score more than a hun­dred points when the Lak­ers play the Nets on March 17 — two days af­ter my sister’s twen­ty-sixth birth­day, as a mat­ter of fact, and there is a chance she will be cel­e­brat­ing it in Kenya — and even­tu­al­ly that day will come, and, if I am still alive, on or af­ter that day I will know whether or not he in­deed did score more than a hun­dred points; but I will nev­er know whether if I had nev­er made the pre­dic­tion that I have here made the out­come would have been dif­fer­ent. The sport spec­ta­tor watch­es and, of course, he talks — he an­a­lyzes — but if we want our so­ci­ol­o­gy of him, we will have to ask our­selves what makes do­ing these things worthwhile.

The an­swer, I sus­pect, is not so far from the lead­ed cab­i­netry and ex­posed break­ables in the liv­ing room and din­ing room of my par­ents’ house in Mil­wau­kee, hov­er­ing at the edges or bound­aries of every game of piss poor. Like them, the world as it might be is pre­cious, frag­ile, and ex­posed, and every in­ter­ven­tion we make in­to it threat­ens — like that pink ball, like the float­ing ha­lo of a Cau­casian breast, be­tween throw and bounce and catch — to de­stroy it be­fore it ever was.

Filed under Non-Fiction on February 5th, 2006

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