We Got Game

How Sports Took Over American Culture

What's the most important annual event in American culture? If you guessed the Oscars, you're in the wrong locker room, wuss. It's the Super Bowl.

Football is the flying wedge of an industry that generates an astonishing amount of money—$213 billion last year, according to 'Sports Business Journal.' And that doesn't include the revenues from 'recreational' activities like fishing, camping, or strutting in running pants. If you added in these ancillaries, sports would be bigger than banking, but even without them, it grosses nearly seven times as much as its closest entertainment rival, movies. On Super Bowl Sunday alone, more than $250 million will change hands when the Titans meet the Rams before a rapt audience 140 million strong. While women are a bigger part of this crowd than you might think—up to 40 percent by one account—it's still the best place to reach that coveted advertiser demographic: young dudes on brew. Gathering round "the national campfire," they bond and buy cars.

But the Super Bowl is much more than a cash cow. It's the culminating moment of a game that has become the most important ritual in American life. As sportswriter Robert Lipsyte notes despairingly, Super Sunday is "the national holy day of a secular religion." But perhaps a better metaphor for the power of football is art.

You don't need a degree in pigskin studies to argue that, when it comes to immersion and identification—the very definition of an aesthetic experience—nothing beats this impact art. No Gesamtkunstwerk can generate such intense emotions in so many men. No song crosses age, race, and class lines like sports in general and football in particular. The Super Bowl is to America what Wagner's Ringis to Germany: a national opera that connects the past to the future, a sacred mediator of the violent, the venal, and the sublime.

No wonder Hollywood wants in on the game. Sports movies are now a fast-track genre, and football films lead the pack. In the pipeline are gridiron mellers like One for the Ages, in which a coach tries to assemble a new team after the old squad perishes in a plane crash; inspirationals like Finding Forrester, in which a boy on an athletic scholarship discovers a talent for writing; race dramas like The Titans, in which a black coach takes over a hostile white team; and ass-patting comedies like Naked Reverse, described by Varietyas "combining three American institutions: sex, the media, and college football." This is not to mention the slew of boxing bios, wrestling docs, and meta-soccer sagas like The Cup, in which a Buddhist monk turns his love of the game over to a higher power. All that's missing from this lineup is a Bruce Willis epic about a quarterback who saves the world by hurling an atomic football at a death star.

Times have certainly changed since Ron Shelton struggled to make a movie about a bush-league intellectual named Crash Davies. "It was very difficult to get Bull Durham off the ground, because no one wanted to make a sports movie 10 or 11 years ago," Shelton recalls. Now, after five sports films (including White Men Can't Jump), Shelton is the master of his own subgenre: the jock-com. "When I started to make these films, sports was just the background that you could spin yarns around, like generations of directors did with Westerns," he notes. But now that sports pervades the culture, the game has become the main event, which is probably why Shelton's current film, Play It to the Bone, features a lavishly brutal fight between two devoted buds. It may intrude on the drollery to see Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas beat each other to a pulp, but it's what people pay to see. Especially guyz.

After football, boxing is the most popular setting for sports movies today. Which is one reason why, after 12 years of kicking around the studios, Norman Jewison finally got to make his Rubin Carter biopic, The Hurricane. A month into its run, it's the third highest-grossing film in America and likely to propel Denzel Washington to an Oscar. Though most critics thought racism was the true subject of this film, there's an old tradition of duct-taping major social issues to sports movies. In fact, if you ignore the racial content, The Hurricane has the ultimate sports-movie theme: the personal ordeal. Athletes who face death, overcome defeat, or rise from degradation are what give this genre its iconic pop. As Shelton observes, "Whatever mythologies we had at the end of the 19th century, they've become sports mythologies today."

No movie better illustrates this myth-devouring power than Any Given Sunday, Oliver Stone's attempt to put the manback in management. In a Christmas week of powerhouse dramas, this was the biggest film, bum-rushing that little cocksucker Mr. Ripley. One reason is Stone's camera, which takes the adrenal style of TV sports photography to jump-cut heaven; but there's also the requisite Big Issue: commerce vs. game. This theme is manifest in the character of coach Tony D'Amato, played by Al Pacino, who has become the repository of mature male potency in a pussified world. Here he teaches a self-centered young black athlete how to win and lose "like a man." It's everything you could want in a sports movie—racial reconciliation, filial love, and deep male bonding—laced with the kind of gender politics that makes you understand how sexual Stone's paranoia has been all along. The team's ruthless owner (Cameron Diaz) is a more destructive version of the crazy female owners in Major League, Slapshot,and the HBO series First and Ten. We know she's an unnatural woman from the way she ignores the giant dicks on display in the locker room. As an emblem of unjust power, Diaz stands for the hype that is destroying the game, while Pacino rhapsodizes about its "purity." Guess who wins?

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.

Throughout its history, sports has been shaped by women, though not on the playing field. The rise of feminism in the late 19th century coincides with the emergence of most modern games. They were invented in an eruption of male anxiety. In America, the takeover of grade-school teaching by women led to fears of a "feminized" society so profound that sports was introduced into schools—but only for boys. In the 1920s, when the "new woman" met the jazz age, sports achieved its greatest cultural clout. In the 1950s, when fears of "momism" and the castrating women reached a fever pitch, so did America's preoccupation with guy games. Now, as women make a run at men where it really counts, in the pocketbook, sports has become a cultural obsession, a sensate consolation prize for men.

Of course, the thrill of sports has little to do with the inherent qualities of gender, whatever they may be. The phallic rush of playing ball is something everyone can enjoy, since it comes from projecting the body, not the penis, as a vector of agency and impact on space. To play the game, as Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, "is to assert one's sovereignty over the world." Women deprived of sports, she writes, do not "dare to be enterprising, to revolt, to invent." They regard "the existing state of affairs as something fixed."

Perhaps men's instinctive sense of the game's power is why women have long been tracked away from team sports, and why those who play against guys are still so villified. We've set up sports as the primary ritual of masculine identity, the place where men can vent their feelings in each other's company; where fathers bond with sons, brothers pat each other on the butt, and God is so pleased he puts an angel in the outfield.

Sports, sociologist Michael Messner notes, "solidifies the male peer group as separate from females." This explains why homophobia is such a reflex of jock culture, and why the sports that women (presumably) can't play are so important in an era of female-headed households. Behind every rabid sports fan, according to this theory, lies a guy with a strong mother and a weak or absent father, clinging to the turf he wrested from the world of women, the ritual he associates with the passage from boy to man.

As for women who love jocks too much, perhaps there's an underlying sense that these are actually the neediest of men. In Play It to the Bone, both fighters are held together by their mutual girlfriend, who mitigates their anxieties about fighting and lovemaking. "Boxers are driven by enormous need," says director Ron Shelton, who has befriended many of them. "They are obsessive about fighting, obsessive about criminality, obsessive in their sexuality."

This is certainly true of the football players in Any Given Sunday, and even the coach Pacino plays. His fixation on the game has driven away his wife and limited his intimate relationships to prostitutes, so that he's left with only his hunger for the "purity" of the male preserve. As for Diaz's "unfeminine" owner, driven by identification with her dead father (who badly wanted a son, we're told), she gets her comeuppance, waylaid not just by the coach but by the entire power structure of football, represented by the consummate commissioner, Charlton Heston. "That woman would eat her young," he whispers after a patronizing encounter with Diaz, who learns that, however aggressive she may be, she cannot break through what Nelson calls "the cement ceiling."

Will that ever change? Quite possibly, but for now, the best Hollywood can do is acknowledge that the real contest—in sports as in life—is between the player and the system. This is the grand theme not only of today's jock operas but of sports itself, and it's the key to the current power of the game.

 


Sports movies used to be about all sorts of things: faith, friendship, struggle, aging, death. But these days they all tell the same story: men standing against the system. The imprisoned black champion in The Hurricane, the washed-up fighters in Play It to the Bone,Coach D'Amato in Any Given Sunday: Call them all Ishmael.

Why this fixation on the jock as rebel? In part, it's a trope of entertainment: The ass-kicking outsider is right up there with the loner as a prime symbol of the unrepentant American male. And the less functional he becomes in the world, the sexier he seems. As a poignant reaction to the conditions of ordinary life, his pose of resistance is the perfect romantic stance. It makes a great narrative, which the entertainment industry has been feeding off for many years.

But now that Hollywood is being blamed for everything from nose rings to Columbine, it's time to clean this bad boy up. What better way than to make him an athlete, tapping into myths that resonate with the culture's core. For nothing reconciles the agendas of the left and right like sports. Many a liberal is consoled by the belief that the game is ultimately about the outcast who overcomes, and many a conservative is coddled by the association of sports with an America where men and boys could bask in the glory of the home team. Because sports contains no predetermined plot, it can easily encompass both these scenarios. After all, in a fight or game, as Michael Messner writes, "power is always in play."

But there is an order, especially in football, our most hierarchical game. Its chief architect, Walter Camp, meant the sport to be that way. A business executive turned journalist, Camp refitted this 19th-century game, modeling it on the efficient corporation, with a powerful coach and a squad of men arranged so that some used brains and others brawn, each player selected for the task that suited his "natural" abilities. (This suggests why coaches of color are so rare: White fans still prefer the black body to the black mind.) Camp couldn't have guessed in 1913 that football would become the ultimate postmodern epic: a game of heroes in a world of tight formations, where the real power resides off the field.

So what are we celebrating when we huddle around the home entertainment center on Super Bowl Sunday? The purity of the game? The sanctity of the self? Or everything we are not?

Research intern: Joshua Lefkowitz

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