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EXPERT OPINION: Sports and culture, with Dan Nathan


Why are sports so important to so many? For one, sport can be dramatic and beautiful—some athletes seem to defy physics with their balletic grace and power. There’s a strong cultural compo- nent, too. Sports are systems of physi- cal competition and strategy rooted in history and crafted by people. That’s one reason they help build a feeling of com- munity and belonging. Rooting with fel- low fans is an expression of connected- ness, and home-team pride can symbol- ize a community’s sense of its values. I’m interested lately in the growing


transnationalism of US sports. More than a quarter of big-league baseball players are Latin Ameri- can. Pro basketball is multicultural too; the San Antonio Spurs—with players from France, Argen tina, Australia, Canada, and Italy—are an exemplar for any institution wanting to build a multicul- tural community that cele- brates diversity and a self- less, team-first ethos.


Is baseball really the American pastime? Can one game exem- plify the innumerable hopes and dreams and identities of more than 300 million Americans? Some think it can. This “national pastime” ideal may have been somewhat true in the 1950s, after pro baseball was racially integrated at long last, and before the mass media helped bring basketball and football to


the attention of so many viewers. Anyway, it’s a notion with a long his-


tory. In the late 1800s, the poet Walt Whitman said baseball “has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere.” Baseball has been said to balance the values of individualism and teamwork just as America does, or to be a family tradition that bonds parents and kids as they play catch in the backyard and al- ways aim to arrive “safe at home,” or to have a pastoral wholesomeness like the ideal of American farm life. The romance of baseball has been used to promote many things: a particular version of mas- culinity, the assimilation of immigrants, and, for a time, white supremacy. That said, around the 1960s, I’d


say, football sacked baseball as the national pastime.


What does the head-injury crisis mean for American football? Pro football has never been more popular and profitable, and an extensive infra- structure of youth and college football feeds it. It’s the number-one mass-mediated violent spectator sport in this coun- try. In football, team loyalty can be ex-


pressed aggressively—


players literally hit their opponents—and yet it enjoys high cultural standing as a legitimate form of entertainment. Of course, it’s not a contact sport; it’s a


collision sport. Its


Editor of Rooting for the Home Team: Sport, Community, and Identity and other award-winning publications, Dan Nathan teaches a range of American studies courses. And roots for the Balti- more Orioles.


very nature is violent and dangerous, so I think it’s impossible to make it safe. With the high rates of dementia after a career of head traumas, if the lawsuits by for- mer players and families continue, I can foresee football someday becoming a marginal gladiator sport, like boxing, that primarily attracts the dispossessed.


What about sports in higher education? At one end of the spectrum—in top con- ferences with athletic scholarships and TV coverage—it’s disturbing that football or basketball coaches can make many times the salary of the highest-paid pro- fessors (says the professor). At the other end—at a college like Skidmore—athletics never threaten to undercut our stated mission, which is education, not the sell- ing of televised spectacles. In my ideal world, no college sports


would be televised or offer scholarships. But as long as bigtime basketball and football games generate hundreds of mil- lions of dollars in TV revenue, I think the players should get a fair slice of the pie. In basketball, many players are African- American recruits from impoverished backgrounds, and revenues from their unpaid performances subsidize their uni- versities’ other teams, including predom- inantly white ones like golf, tennis, swimming, and soccer. Yet paying the players could raise Title IX complications about equity between men’s and women’s athletics. Sports always tell us something about our culture.


FALL 20 14 SCOPE 5


MARK BOLLES


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