Friday, July 15, 2011

All in the Game

By Neil Bright

With ever-increasing demand for reality television, candidates for originating the genre are as common as scantily clad Survivor contestants, tone deaf American Idol wannabes, or Casey Anthony fabrications. Trailblazing contenders include Candid Camera in 1948, a myriad of game shows in the 1950s, the PBS documentary An American Family in 1973, and MTV's Real World in 1992. However, such shows are but descendants of the reality archetype. Rarely recognized as such, non-professional actors in unscripted broadcasts first smiled for candid cameras in 1939 during a televised baseball game between the Columbia Lions and the Princeton Tigers.

As with reality programming in general, "we're better than that" critics regard interest in televised sports as interest in the irrelevant. Armed with a monopoly of truth on how to recreate, sanctimonious faultfinders view each minute devoted to televised sports as one less for "doing something useful." Yet in stereotyping fervent fans as slothful, beer-bellied, has-been and never-was arm-chaired athletes, detractors prove the widest of generalizations are often made by the narrowest of minds.

Not surprisingly, those devaluing interest in gridirons, diamonds, and hardwood courts, are often guilty of almost identical behaviors as the "fanatics" they deride. Watching soap operas, "serious" dramas, or "who done it" mysteries, critics fail to realize such pastimes are not unlike watching Tom Brady throw a pass or Derek Jeter reach 3,000 hits. Whether told by a writer or authored by an athlete, viewers become concerned with the welfare of protagonists and the outcome of stories seemingly having no direct impact on their lives.

Is it so different caring whether Tony Soprano loses his life or Mariano Rivera his fastball? Is it so different investing emotion whether Carrie Underwood wins or Peyton Manning loses? And is it any different where LeBron James parks his sneakers or Carrie Bradshaw her Manolos? In the end, all provide temporary escape from increasingly complex "stop the world I want to get off" lives.

Reading a book, watching a movie, following a reality series, or attending a ballgame, one becomes engrossed with their characters. Each page, each scene, and each pitch furthers the drama. Condoning one activity while devaluing the other is inconsistent and absurd. This is no less so for sports fans critical of soap operas as it is for high brow Shakespeare aficionados belittling interest in Super Bowls.

Preoccupation with spectator sports emotionally stimulates what other recreations rarely elicit. As jaded adults, it becomes increasingly difficult to affect unapologetically childlike anticipation, excitement, or joy. For many, televised sports is one of a handful of activities rekindling our emotional pasts. In doing so, spectator sports contribute to one's life what children contribute to a home. And that is a mixture of joy, frustration, and wonder.

However, as with any generally positive behavior or emotion, regression can lead to immature and counterproductive extremes. Well chronicled are examples of fans running amok after championship games. Equally so are examples of fans brutalizing those "guilty" of worshiping another team. And on a much less violent but no less juvenile level, fans overly identifying with their team adopt a "sky is falling" mindset when losing or a sense of personal accomplishment and hubris when not.

Yet in claiming the intellectual high ground in criticizing rabid sports fans, critics miss the point. Any recreation goes too far if single-focused at the expense of family, job, and emotional or physical health. But is that the fault of the pastime in particular or of human nature in general? Blaming spectator sports for excesses of behavior is like blaming cars for accidents or supermarkets for obesity. In the end, there is free will. And sports fandom taken to negative extremes is not the first or last time otherwise positive activities were corrupted by the foibles of who we are.

Criticism to the contrary, love of spectator sports in and of itself is neither inauthentic nor passive. Few things in life are more real than the emotions generated by spectator interest in athletics. It is an activity as old as man himself. And with the football season fast approaching, it would be wise for critics to understand that spectator sports is not a pale substitute for life. It is life.

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