We Got Game

How Sports Took Over American Culture

It's no surprise that Hollywood would play a major role in spreading sports culture. Movies have a unique ability to turn the roil of reality into grand statements about the human condition, if only because, unlike most events, films tell stories. Through the magic of narrative, they turn heroes into icons and icons into myths. Yet the true triumph of sports is its impact on non-narrative forms. Earlier this month, the house of Versace announced a menswear line featuring "the Fight Club look." Meanwhile in the world of virtual gaming, a new generation of league-endorsed product invites such intimacy with players that you can see their misty breath as you move them around. Highways are named after athletes. Toddlers carry dolls of men on steroids. Even the ancient art of literature pays homage to the glory of the game. You can't get tonier than Joyce Carol Oates on boxing, and when it comes to kitsch epiphanies, you can't beat Norman Mailer calling Muhammad Ali "the Prince of Heaven."

Like the poor, sports will always be with us. But its power as a cultural metaphor waxes and wanes. In the 1960s, for example, music was a much more important phenomenon. But today, sports is the new rock 'n' roll. It shapes the clothes we wear, the bars we frequent, the heroes we worship, and most of all, the way we tell the men from the sissy boys. "Jock culture haunts our national daydreams," Lipsyte writes. Only Wall Street is bigger news.

 


In order to understand why sports rules, it's necessary to ask another question: What has changed in American society since the day 33 years ago when football commissioner Pete Rozelle invented the Super Bowl?

In part, the medium is the message. In an age of network glut, sports is the ideal vehicle for capturing the audience that's hardest to hold, since nothing keeps a guy from flipping channels like a good, tight game. The result is a voracious demand for programming. Media rights now account for half a team's revenues, and with satellite and cable networks beaming sports 24/7, it's possible to immerse yourself in jock culture like never before. There's plenty of reinforcement from the retail world, where champions are the masters of synergy. No one moves merch like Michael Jordan, the most visible man in a culture where exposure—not knowledge—is power.

But the media are just the means to sports' supremacy. The driving force is social change. Ever since the first son of an immigrant broke the gentleman-athlete mold, sports has been the symbolic vehicle for upward mobility. From the '40s through the '60s, the game was the stage on which the great American race drama was played. Now it's women's turn to enter the sports-as-status fray. Ever since Title IX, the 1972 law that forced federally funded schools to provide educational resources for women on a par with men, the number of female athletes has exploded. "In 1972, one out of 27 girls played varsity sports," notes Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "Today it's one in three"—nearly what it is for boys.

Backlash notwithstanding, there have been remarkable victories by women athletes in the past few years: Olympic gold medals in basketball and hockey, and the spectacular World Cup victory last year. This was one of the decade's biggest sports stories, and it catapulted the soccer team's co-captain Mia Hamm to the major product-endorsement leagues. But she's no Michael Jordan, any more than Picabo Street will ever get rich by hawking a grill. The culture has lagged notably behind the news when it comes to women's sports, and this is evident in the plotlines of sports films. Eight years have passed since the last major film about women in sports, A League of Their Own, and the forthcoming Love and Basketball hedges its hoops by following players of both sexes on their quest for cereal endorsements.

This male presence movies is crucial because, while girls will watch a movie about guys in spandex or pinstripes, guys won't sit for a story about girls in uniform, at least not in numbers worth creating a genre. The same is true for games on TV. "One of the things depressing women's leagues is the glut of men's product on TV," says Lopiano. "There's been such a heavy investment in men's sports, especially in prime time. It's a real self-fulfilling prophecy. The networks say the numbers aren't there, but ratings are partly a function of consistency in exposure and time slot." Women athletes may draw big during the Olympics—when the networks deign to cover their team—but there's no female equivalent of Monday Night Football.

The root question is why, as former pro-basketball player Mariah Burton Nelson writes, "the stronger women get, the more men love football"? So much so that it's now the highest-grossing game in the country—and the one women have yet to master. At the cineplex, at least, there's that boom in boxing, another sport where women have had a hard time breaking through. It can't be a coincidence that these two games are also notoriously violent. But the lust for blood and guts is not the only reason why sports that privilege the natural endowment of males—muscle mass—are the most popular today. Sports has long been a way for men to carve out a separate terrain from women, an autonomous zone with its own language, litany (stats), and lineage. This zone, the proving ground for generations of American men, is an increasingly archaic place.

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