Karl Marx, the father of the communist movement, is often quoted as saying that "Religion . . . is the opium of the people." Whatever validity Marx's dictum may have had when he wrote it almost 200 years ago, it has little relevance in the secular world of 2013. In the United States, at least, it is Big Time athletics that has become the opiate of the people. And America's voyeuristic preoccupation with Big Time Sports programs not only diverts the popular attention span from the more important things in life, it has a degrading effect on the outlook and behavior of the growing legions of spectator sports addicts.
Oddly, the obsessive and excessive quality of big-time spectator sports today is proudly embraced rather than denied. Numerous popular sports radio programs are unashamedly but revealingly called "The Sports Fix" or "The Sports Addicts." Similarly, a frequently run advertisement on the sports mega-network, ESPN, gleefully depicts the extreme and irrational behavior of various categories of sports fans and then triumphantly and dogmatically proclaims, "It's not crazy. It's sports." It is simply taken for granted that the irrational excess associated with the fans of pro or college sports programs is normal and healthy, and anyone who disagrees is considered pompous, prissy, and pretentious.Of course, enjoyment and admiration of popular teams and athletes has long been a part of American culture, and, like millions of my own generation, I spent a good portion of my boyhood as an avid sports fan when I was not actually playing basketball. But what was once a wholesome diversion has evolved for too many Americans into an obsessive preoccupation that is divorced from all sense of balance, proportion, or common sense. Consider just a few examples of bloated excess in big-time spectator sports that readily come to mind:
· Governments and their taxpayers continue to finance obscenely lavish sports stadiums, to the tune of about $500 million per year (totaling some $1.2 billion in recent years), with public funds and subsidies. The pro sports Taj Mahals are constructed for the benefit of billionaire owners, multi-millionaire players, and mostly affluent ticket-holders with funds that would be better spent on police forces, firefighters, and public schools in cities mired in crime, degenerate slums, and third-rate school systems. That the mass of citizens do not rise up in rebellion against this grotesque misallocation of resources is mainly attributable to those citizens' own delusional addiction to the sports programs in question.
· The salaries of coaches and professional athletes have long surpassed all bounds of sanity and proportion. The average salaries of collegiate football and basketball coaches is over $1.6 million, with the high-end making $5.5 million. Even assistant coaches at major universities can earn multiple six-figure salaries. The average salaries of professional basketball, baseball, and football players are around $5.15 million, $3.3 million, and $2 million, respectively, with the so-called superstars making astronomically more than that. Meanwhile, the physicians who save and prolong our lives earn only a small fraction of those salaries even after ten years of med school, internship, and residency, and many years of practice. And while pro athletes who are fraudulently identified as "warriors" collect their millions in between their off-the-field misbehaviors, the real warriors of the Armed Forces who fight our wars, including the man who shot Bin Laden, often struggle to find any job at all. And those who lamely defend this lunacy on the argument that it is merely the natural workings of our capitalist system miss the mark entirely – the point is not that such imbalances should be outlawed or regulated by government, but that the value system that creates them is grotesquely distorted. The fault, dear Brutus, is in ourselves.
· In what has become a truly bizarre media circus, legions of deadly serious "sports reporters" line up behind their laptops every year to breathlessly report the announcements of 17-year-old high school football players that they will deign to accept what are laughably still called "scholarships" to the universities of their choice. This media-created sideshow has evolved into a highly-publicized annual "event," and has even been accorded an official title with portentous initial caps, like the Super Bowl: "National Signing Day." Preening in the glow of their instant celebrity, the oversized teenage athletes make their announcements behind podiums and banks of microphones with all the fanfare of a press conference announcing the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice; and the hundreds of fawning reporters who attend this contrived farce treat it with equivalent gravity. And weeks later the whole twisted scenario is repeated, except on an even larger and more elaborate scale, when an even larger horde of media drones and sycophants gathers to broadcast the spectacle of collegiate "scholar-athletes" donning the caps of the NFL teams that have drafted them. The breathless drama with which the selections are announced is beyond satire.
· While in past decades little boys would wear the ball caps of their favorite teams, we have now come to take for granted the odd custom of middle-aged men routinely wearing jerseys boldly emblazoned with the names of their favorite pro athletes. Putting aside the questionable character of some of those same athletes, exactly when did it become commonplace and accepted for presumably mature grown men to act like hero-worshipping little boys? It is hard to imagine the men of the World War II generation (aptly called The Greatest Generation), in contrast, acting as poster-boys for pro athletes; they were too comfortable in their own skin. What makes this curious phenomenon even harder to fathom is that the fans in question pay very high prices for the "privilege" of providing the players free publicity on their billboard shirtbacks.
· The NFL's Super Bowl has assumed the status of a grotesque and gargantuan Circus Maximus that would put the excesses of Caligulan Rome to shame. Fellini in his wildest dreams would have difficulty conjuring a more sordid spectacle that at once combines gladiatorial violence, sexual exhibitionism, conspicuous gluttony, and Madison Avenue Madness in a lurid spectacle that originated as a simple game. Persons who would otherwise recoil at the displays of vulgar excess that have become hallmarks of this national revelry feel somehow obligated not only to accept it, but to enthusiastically embrace it at one of the millions of Super Bowl parties that have become a National Ritual. For at least two weeks preceding the game, whole batteries of sports commentators devote thousands of program hours painstakingly discussing every possible aspect and angle of the teams, the players, and even the entertainers and the advertisements that add to the grotesque glitter surrounding the game. Had anything approaching such minute analysis been devoted to the National Health Care bill or to the national debt and deficit crises, the Nation might have avoided the disasters about to descend upon it.
· The celebration of sports victories has expanded out of all proportion to the significance of the games themselves. A routine victory over a conference rival in college basketball now invariably triggers a mandatory student-body "rush" onto the court, an effusion once reserved for a truly special event, such as an upset victory in a major championship game. A really significant victory of the latter kind is now apt to trigger a virtual public riot, replete with mobs rampaging in the streets and mass acts of pyromania that would put the Brits' Guy Fawkes Day bonfires to shame. But the excess at the collegiate level is nothing compared to the grossly outsized celebrations and ceremonies that follow a championship victory in the major pro sports. Municipal parades reminiscent of those that honored our troops for winning World War II are now de rigueur to honor the victors of these staged corporate contests – even though the honorees have merely performed the services that they are excessively compensated for in the first place. And for some odd reason beyond rational understanding, it has somehow become mandatory for the President to invite every pro sports championship team to be honored at a staged White House ceremony, as though they had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.
· None of the sports excess outlined above would have occurred, of course, without the cultivation, complicity, subsidy, and support of the corporate sports media. Whole networks (both TV and radio), most notably the notorious and odious ESPN, are devoted to 24-hour per day sports coverage. The never-ending cycle of media promotion and sensationalism both stimulates and reinforces the sports public's seemingly insatiable appetite for its "sports fix."Participatory sports activities continue to occupy a positive and enjoyable place in American life, and the expanding opportunities for participation in an enormous variety of sports for persons of all ages is one of the more beneficial developments of our age. But the disturbing excesses and distortions that have evolved around Big Time spectator and media sports are another matter altogether. Restoring some sense of proportion in this increasingly bizarre arena may seem a hopeless task, but unless and until that happens, our Big Time Sports culture will continue to undermine the very virtues and ideals that sports were intended to develop.