If you are among the estimated 90 million Americans who watched the Indianapolis Colts’ victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI last night, this article is about you. If you aren’t, it’s about you too.
Over the last 50 years, spectator sports have penetrated American culture to such a large degree, that none of us would be the same without them. How has this happened? Have we been changed for the better or for the worse?
Because so many of you have expressed interest in a series of articles on the influence of technology and media on contemporary culture, especially on our youth, over the next few weeks I am going to intersperse articles of this type into our regular mix of social and ethical commentary.
Inspired, so to speak, by the Super Bowl, we’ll start today with spectator sports. Are they a balanced part of my life and American society?
First, a few facts to give some context, then a short analysis:
Spectator Sports and Our Money
• Since 1990, Americans have more than tripled the amount of money they spend on admission to spectator sports (professional and amateur). Here is the sampling in recent years: 1990 (4.8 billion); 1995 (7.4 billion); 2000 (11.5 billion); 2005 (15.9 billion)
• Since 1990, the amount of personal income spent on spectator sporting events has been greater than the amount spent on events in the arts fields, including theater, opera, non-profit events, and motion pictures.
Source: US Census Bureau. 2007 Statistical Abstract.
Two Decisive Moments for Spectator Sports in America
• Spectator sports in America began in large scale with baseball. Beginning with East Coast cities in the 1850s and spreading to the rest of the nation during the Civil War in the 1860s. Baseball quickly became the national pastime. In the first half of the 1900s it produced national sports heroes like Cy Young, Ty Cobb, and Babe Ruth.
• In the second half of the 20th century, television catapulted spectator sports to a new level of cultural influence. The commercial sports industry boomed with the increased number of Americans following sports on the tube. The average cost of a 30-second advertisement on last night’s game, for example, was nearly $2,500,000.
Nowadays it’s easy to be a culture critic. Modern society is littered with obvious exaggerations and internal contradictions. If you have a bit of common sense and raise your voice loud enough, honest and thinking people will agree and will be grateful.
The challenge, however — taken up by very few — is to outline a practical road to personal and societal betterment. I feel a particular responsibility to do this in relation to the topic of spectator sports first of all because it affects so many people. Secondly, and more importantly, I want to avoid only mentioning the negative because while spectator sports has its own set of problems, for many people it replaces a host of evils.
The phenomenal growth of spectator sports in America is revealing of our needs and desires as people. The following are seven examples of how spectator sports tap into these natural inclinations. All seven are good and healthy if they are lived with proper balance.
1) Following sports gives us relief from life’s complexities and difficulties.
2) Becoming a loyal fan of a particular team allows us to identify with something bigger than ourselves. “I’m a Cleveland Browns fan, how about you?”
3) This identification also creates instant camaraderie with a large group of people and healthy competition with others.
4) Being up on sports facts provides light and positive conversation topics.
5) In a society starved of positive role models, sports stars give us someone to root for.
6) Sitting down to watch a game can bring the family — at least part of it — together.
7) With increased leisure time at our disposition, spectator sports provide a relatively healthy option for investing our free time.
But each of these can be destructive to our personal, family, and societal development when they get out of whack. Here’s what these good things look like when there is no balance:
Note: Before reading #1 from the list below, re-read the corresponding number above, and do this for each number. Remember, the list below is the distorted version of the good things above.
1) I sometimes shirk my family and professional obligations, but I never miss a game.
2) I identify more with my team than with being my wife’s husband, my children’s father, my parents’ son, my company’s employee, or a member of my church.
3) I don’t have many friendships, but I have lots of buddies. These aren’t guys I would be willing to sacrifice much for. I drink beer with them and they make me laugh.
4) I talk about sports in order to steer clear from serious topics. At family reunions, the game is always on, and that’s, of course, what we talk about, even if we haven’t seen each other since last year.
5) I wear jerseys and hats showing off the name of a guy who has spent time in jail, abandoned his wife, and failed numerous drug tests.
6) We don’t really have family dinner hour any more. I eat on the couch. I don’t remember the last time we had a picnic at a park or rode bikes together. But we do have a fabulous plasma TV.
7) I only read one section of the newspaper. I can’t remember the last book I read cover to cover. Go see a Broadway play? I never get around to it.
A final note to guys: If after reading these seven examples you’re unsure whether spectator sports plays a balanced role in your life, ask your wife. She’ll gladly help, I’m sure.
God bless, Father Jonathan
What I have been reading:
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News Which Never Made the News
• Church Demolished by Tornado Becomes Symbol of Upended Florida Town
• Pope Pushes for Interreligious Dialogue
• Spirituality's Role is Affirmed in Facing Cancer
• Virginia Debates Apology for Slavery