All games are child’s play. This includes the games played by adults, though not all adults who play games are childish. There is, after all, a lot of money to be made playing games, so you can’t really blame anyone who has the knack for it for devoting the best years of his life to frivolous pursuits like hitting a ball with a stick or jumping up and down. The essential stupidity of adult games, of sports as a profession, of what grown men and women are actually engaged in doing with a golf club or a tennis racket or a baseball bat or a hockey stick, has less to do with the athletes themselves than with the society that glorifies them, that watches, not just sports but everything else – in a word, the viewing audience.
Not even the Ancient Romans or Byzantines in their most degenerate phases attached themselves so enthusiastically to the heroes of the arena. We all understand pretty well what is behind all this, for nothing is more boring, even for the diehard sports fan, than watching a game where you aren’t rooting for one side or the other. We do not watch a game for its own sake but for the sake of living vicariously through a surrogate self. We require this in societies such as ours in the absence of personal distinction, which is the fate of the vast majority of mankind. It is a sad commentary on our society that the heroes we choose to idolize are not scientists, artists, doctors, teachers or simply decent human beings, but ballplayers, and of course movie stars.
From time to time, ballplayers and movie stars get together for some gala event, and then you have a curious situation where you can’t really say who is going to be starstruck over whom. The ballplayers, after all, are actually doing something and doing it very well while the actors are only pretending to be what they are not and have no real skills. On the other hand, the celebrity of the actor is greater than the celebrity of the ballplayer, his offscreen life is more interesting to the viewing audience, and what is more he usually has a lively personality whereas the athlete usually does not, is in fact pretty dull, talking in platitudes or mumbling something about going out there and having fun. In all of pro basketball, I can think of very few players you would have wanted to listen to for more than 30 seconds: Shaquille O’Neal certainly, Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson for his edge, Michael Jordan for his presence. As for baseball, I have never heard any player say anything that would interest a 10-year-old child. And in boxing there is only the incomparable Ali.
It is a basic feature of modern societies that people are rewarded for the economic value of their work rather than for its social value. This is natural and desirable from the entrepreneur’s point of view. Work that produces money is worth more on the market than work that doesn’t, and therefore executives in the dog food industry make a lot more money than teachers and nurses and baseball players make a lot more money than cleaning women, though the work of the latter has considerably more social value than the work of the former, since without cleanliness we would get disease while without entertainment we would only get boredom. In this respect, medieval man was far more sensible than modern man, rewarding jesters and jongleurs modestly and holding them in fairly low esteem in contrast to our own times where clowns become idols and sometimes even get their own talk shows.
It may be said that, if not for social or intellectual achievement, surely we might have chosen to idolize manly heroes of a more worthy kind instead of frivolous ones: military men, law enforcers, fire fighters, for example; and many of us do in fact admire them greatly, especially when they are portrayed on the screen by Hollywood stars. In real life, however, their careers interest us less, for the simple reason that their lives have not been sufficiently commercialized to keep them in front of us wherever we look: no live broadcasts, no instant replays, no postgame interviews. no endorsements, no bubble gum cards. Also, their contests are less dramatic, less sharply focused. On the ballfield you get a winner in just a few hours, each and every day, so the rush is bigger and better when it comes. Soldiers and fire fighters can’t compete with baseball players when it comes to giving the viewing audience the fix that it needs.
The really diehard fan, it has to be said, the fan that professional sports organizations are always thanking, the fan who inspires the players, the fan for whom they are playing, is a pathetic figure. He lives and dies with his team. His destiny is bound up with it. He has invested everything he has in it. Days before big games his stomach is already in knots. You can’t talk to him. He won’t even take out the garbage. And after a loss he is inconsolable. It takes him days to recover. Not everyone is this sick of course. There is a kind of recovery index that will tell you just how sick one is, running from seconds for healthy individuals to days for terminal cases. The fan is an inseparable part of sports culture. Now that we have talkbacks you will find him in front of a computer cursing everyone in sight from morning till night. Without such fans, where would professional sports be?
The status of ballplayers, like the status of movie stars, is indicative of a very sick society, a society whose members look around desperately for some source of satisfaction, something to lift them up, something outside themselves to which they can attach themselves when it becomes clear that they aren’t going to get any satisfaction from within themselves. They are not to blame. This is the ethos. The American Dream is a hollow dream, of wealth and fame. It leaves very little room for other dreams, it seduces and captivates and dooms an entire society to chasing after distant stars.