The Thin Gray Line Between Sport and Spectacle

Almost a year ago in my advanced nonfiction writing class I questioned whether Sport was a valuable expenditure of my time. I was always fond of the philosopher Socrate. He said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So I started to examine. I had spent the better part of fifteen years involved in Sport in various capacities. I looked at whether I cared too much about Sport or too little about everything else. I had classmates thinking I hated Sport and everything to do with it. That I had wasted my childhood. The truth was for a week I had taken up that thought process. What I found out was that I couldn’t hold that thinking. I hadn’t wasted my life at all. I did love Sport. Separation makes the heart grow fonder.

That worked fine. I love Sport. Even went to graduate school to get a Masters of Science in Sports Management. All the classes are centered around Sport. I just had my third class a little over 24 hours ago. A question came up that I am now stuck on and is the reason I am writing. “Do you love the Sport or the Spectacle?” The answer, “I love Sport.” is my gut reaction but if actual thought is given to the answer it becomes much more complicated.

In Ancient Greece they competed in Sport for the reason of competing in Sport. It was to honor the gods on Mt. Olympus. Its ideals are behind what the Olympic ideal is today. The honor isn’t in winning but in being able to compete. Greeks would come from all over the countryside to watch athletes push themselves to the limit in speed, strength, dexterity, strategy and so forth.

Then Rome took over. Rome was a little more intense. Watching the transition from Greek Sport to Roman Sport is a scary parallel to what is happening in the past 200 years. Rome placed these events in bigger arenas. The bigger crowds fed into a larger than life atmosphere. Competing wasn’t enough anymore. It was now important to win. And the Romans knew how to get that point across. Win or die was the philosophy as Sport now required blood shed. Crowds would get into it determining who lives and who dies. Club seats lined the Coliseum serving the best wine to the richest patrons.

The Romans had turned Sport into a Spectacle. The Sport is just a part of it the larger event going on. Go to an NBA game today and you’ll see the same shit going on. The game is as important if not secondary to the fireworks and laser light show for player introductions, the dance team and the guy in animal suit shooting T-Shirts out of air cannon.

Ask yourself this question and honestly think about it, “Would you rather have baseball without a steroid policy or what we have now?” While the quick response is “What we have now” if people dwell on it a lot of people would start to lean toward no steroid policy. Homeruns are down. We’ll never see another McGuire, Sosa or Bonds type season again. Pitchers have ruled the season. No-hitters are almost standard fare now.

Every time attendance has started to dip because scoring was too low various professional leagues have changed the rules to increase scoring. Major League Baseball lowered the pitching mound and American League went so far as to add the designated hitter to save the pitcher the embarrassment of trying to swing a bat. The NFL limited contact with wide receivers to within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Back in Johnny Unitas’s day receivers were being mugged all over the field. The NHL started to allow two-line passing so teams could move the puck through the neutral zone quicker and get more breakaway and 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 opportunities.

The point is no longer to compete but to win and win big. A winning record isn’t good enough. A championship is necessary. Taking first in the race can be topped. We need to see a record.

So athletes push themselves. They will go as far as their bodies can take. Sometimes farther. Sometimes by immoral or illegal means. With competing no longer being enough athletes have to cross the twin gray line in to the shady or down right dark areas of life.

The vast majority of Major Leaguers that used steroids would still be in The Show without steroids. But a lot of them wouldn’t have reached the same achievements they have without the help of steroids. But competing isn’t enough any more.

College recruits go to prep schools that are little more than diploma factories just so they can qualify for college under the NCAA’s “harsh” qualifying standards for student-athletes. The recruit can’t waste time on studying; there is a recruit on the opposite side of the country working on his mid-range jumper as we speak.

While those two examples are easy to see the problems with sometimes the issues aren’t as easy to see. Last season I had hip problems. My right hip was in pain after every run. It started near the end of September. Some days were better than others. I didn’t say anything. I just kept plugging away until after track ended in the middle of May. I run a lot less now and the pain is still there, Even just a long day at work can bring it back. Looking back I believe it was worth it. Will I think that in ten years if this is still a problem? I don’t know.

Some people have gone further. Taking the field again after yet another concussion. Playing on through a torn ACL. Taking painkillers to ignore your body to yell stop. Destroying your gastrointestinal system to run with a few less pounds. Destroying your gastrointestinal system to block with a few more pounds. Not taking heart medication because it makes you slower on the court. Repairing tendons in your foot again and risking losing feeling in your foot to fly over the hurdles yet again. Exercising yourself past the point of exhaustion and the exercising some more because you can’t stand the thought of someone out preparing you.

Sport has slowly turned toward what the Romans had developed with life and death hanging in the balance. The fans in the stands don’t scream for an athlete’s death but do expect him to run fast on the ragged edge of life and death if that’s what it takes to win the game.

I always have looked at sacrificing your body for your team as an admirable quality. Just rub some dirt on it you’ll be fine mentality. Or the pain is temporary, glory is forever mentality. The masculine thinking of where death is better than cowardice. Up until a few days ago I believed this was a good trait. This was the tue essence of Sport. Sacrificing yourself. But is the sacrifice happening because of the ever need to win. To reach a bigger stage and ignore all else on the way there.

That’s not to say winning isn’t important. It should be considered important. That is the nature of competiton. Testing one’s self against the competiton and no one wants to fail. But why are we willing to sacrifice a normal living for the rest of our days for something. that will not be done the latter 75% of our lives? While there has to be a certain willingness to fight through pain to compete when do we say it just isn’t worth it anymore? When do we cross that line that separates playing through pain and destroying That line can’t be determined with a wide brush with one answer fitting everybody.

I know the morally correct answer to the question, “Do you love the Sport or do you love the Spectacle?” The Sport. The honor of competing. But I harbor beliefs that Sport should be on the biggest stage. And that people should risk life and limb while competing to win the game if that’s what it will take. I now question whether it is really worth it.

I want to say I love the Sport. But I fear I love the Spectacle. Ask yourself the same question and actually think about it.

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