While Mitt Romney and Barack Obama squabble over whom is the most officious liar, the real war for America’s soul goes largely unnoticed. That fight is taking place between lines of chalk, on grass or artificial turf. The state of a culture can often be divined by simply looking at what the population chooses to do with their free time. Romans famously fed Christians to lions. Nazis invaded sovereign nations for fun. Americans historically look to sporting events. Some could argue that Americans also like invading countries, but eventually they sort of lose interest. Just ask the fair people of Iraq.
Americans are also losing interest in what was long called the national pastime. Baseball has steadily declined in favor, with the 1994 labor stoppage representing a major marker in the erosion of fan loyalty. Baseball once held an exalted place in the pantheon of sporting diversions. It represented the spirit of the nation in many ways. By and large, the players were perceived to be wholesome, despite the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal, the alcoholism and whoring of Babe Ruth, and systemic racism. The dream of baseball, much like the dream of American-style capitalist democracy, is that it was a game anyone could play, it was fair, but also rewarded exceptionalism. The players were hard working, blue-collar lads with a strong set of values. At least, that was the perception.
Contrast that with the violent, messy game of football. Try to picture former Chicago Bears linebacker, Dick Butkus. First of all, his name sounds filthy. Also, it barely sounds American. Who would you rather have over for a barbeque? Dick Butkus or Mickey Mantle? Ignore the fact that Mickey Mantle would drink all of your beer and try to fuck your wife, and the answer is clear. The NFL was a league of rogues and raiders, a sport lacking the quiet dignity and puritan idealism of baseball. People got their bones broken and teeth knocked out. It wasn’t until Joe Namath came to the New York Jets that anyone in the NFL was recognized as remotely handsome.
Major League Baseball was perfect for a growing, agrarian nation. By World War II, as American focus shifted to industrial production, baseball remained the sport of choice out of pure tradition. Cultural changes don’t occur overnight. Ask any racial or sexual minority if bigotry has abated since the election of Barack Obama and they are sure to tell you that it hasn’t. Change takes time, but time has not been kind to baseball.
America is not agrarian. It’s not even industrial anymore. We exist in some sort of post-industrial technomadness where the most successful people are the ones who know how to move data and ideas, not steel or lumber. The days of the quiet, humble worker are long gone. Employers are just as apt to look at your Facebook profile or Klout score as your resume. People actually make healthy livings producing vlogs on YouTube, which is the digital equivalent of getting paid to write in your diary. Writing this essay was more lucrative for me than a full day’s work for some manual laborers. How could a game that takes three hours to finish and discourages on-the-field excitement last in this world?
The NFL, and to a lesser extent the NBA, is the ideal sport for the modern sensibility. It’s brash, loud, colorful, and rigidly timed. The players are arrogant, outlandish, and often lawless. Ben Rothlisberger can allegedly rape someone, Michael Vick can breed dogs to murder each other and the viewing public just begs for more. Unfortunately for baseball, countless players can get caught taking performance-enhancing drugs, but ratings continue to fall.
According to the Associated Press, baseball playoff ratings this month are down 11 percent from last year. Game 2 of the Detroit Tigers/Oakland A’s Division Series and Game 3 of the St. Louis Cardinals/Washington Nationals Division Series averaged 1.2 million viewers on TBS. By contrast, Sunday Night Football on NBC drew upwards of 12 million viewers for a regular season game.
Football players star in reality shows and live fast lives. Baseball players drive pick-up trucks, chew tobacco, and give terse, polite answers to tough post-game questions. Baseball is the sport for people who think civility still matters in discourse. The last presidential debate might lead you to think that civility doesn’t matter. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama looked ready to body slam each other at any given moment. The questions came fast. The audience gasped and cheered when they were supposed to. It was expertly staged theater. Baseball, by comparison, is long stretches of boredom with a few moments of interest sprinkled in for good measure.
Politics is the NFL and the NFL is politics. Both are sports where bloodlust is encouraged. Barack Obama can call Mitt Romney a liar to his face, and Romney can use coded race-baiting language on the campaign trail. The New Orleans Saints can offer bonuses to players who injure people on the other team. Baseball, for all of its faults, is still a humble man’s game. New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi can be polite and genial in post-game interviews. Albert Pujols can refuse to co-opt the nickname of St. Louis Cardinals great, Stan Musial, and generally keep a low profile, even in a bad season.
I played baseball through most of my childhood, and even I have lost my passion for the sport. I can’t lament the death of the game, because it deserves to die. Times change. Sensibilities evolve. If baseball can’t find its place in the 21st century, so be it. It’s just a game. Politics is not a game though. It’s the most vital spectator sport there is. Lives change based on the outcome of an election. The Democratic and Republican parties are not teams. They’re factions in mortal combat. The death of baseball and the rise of football shows what is ahead of us culturally, and in government. There will be more politicians in reality television. There will be more politicians elected based on their slogans or good looks. Debates will continue to dissolve into manic bouts of verbal gunplay.
At this juncture, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Just hope you are on the winning team.
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