I’m taking a break from writing about cars this week to write about sports, although as you will see, cars come into it at the end.
Every October the television sports schedule frustrates me, because of the networks’ obvious bias toward football. October is the month of the baseball playoffs, but try to find a game during the day on a weekend, or on a major network before the World Series, when a game on the east coast starts after 8:30 on a cold autumn night to accommodate the football schedule.
I get it – football is more popular. I’m not sure why. A football game contains about 12 minutes of action to about 25 for a typical baseball game. Football fans have no standing to complain about baseball’s slowness. Neither game is really about action, anyway. Football is about violence, and baseball is about story. If I want action, I’ll watch hockey.
I grew up watching sports and playing sports. Football was the first sport in our house. My father coached a high school team; my mother, a graduate of Ohio State, never missed the Michigan game, or the Rose Bowl if the Buckeyes were in it. But I think now that George Carlin had it right: football and baseball reveal different sides of the American psyche, and it says something unflattering about our national soul that aerial assaults and ground attacks and shotguns and blitzes enjoy greater popularity than the quest to be safe at home.
Recent books and articles about the damaging effects of football have done little to dampen enthusiasm for the game. I’ve stopped watching, and so have others, but the NFL sells just as many cars and cases of beer as it ever did, and its schedule has expanded from Sundays to Monday and Thursday nights and just about any other night of the week, making it hard to find a baseball game on TV even during the playoffs.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we watch sports. I belong to an organization called the Sport Literature Association, a group of writers interested in sports and their cultural import. The annual conference features presentations on the major sports, but also on less popular sports like long distance sailing, bocce, and chess boxing, which is exactly what it sounds like – alternate rounds of chess and boxing, in which one can win by checkmate or knockout. Why isn’t that on TV?
One’s view of sports depends on perspective: the athlete, the announcer, the promoter, the fan. As the writer Leigh Montville has pointed out, it also changes with age. When you are a kid, athletes are heroes and role models. In your twenties and thirties they are your peers. Finally, the players are the kids. The last baseball player older than me was Jesse Orosco, a lefty reliever who finally hung up his cleats in his late forties. Football players don’t last nearly that long.
I divide sports into five rough categories. My favorite sports are baseball and hockey, which conveniently overlap at both ends of their seasons. I know the teams and the players and will sometimes plan an evening around watching a game. I’ll also sometimes talk to the television.
Second are the sports I don’t really follow but consider cool, for a variety of reasons: curling, skiing, sailboat racing, track and field. In this category I’d also include tennis, rowing and other sports you can enjoy as a participant well into middle age.
Third are the sports to which I’m indifferent, but I’ll watch if there’s a compelling story line attached. Boxing with and without Muhammad Ali. I put basketball and soccer in this category.
Fourth are the sports I dislike. These include football and golf. What I said above about tennis and rowing also applies to golf, hence all the old people out playing it. But is there anything more tedious than televised golf? At least baseball has hecklers, and the ball is moving when the batter tries to hit it.
In the last category go the sports that probably shouldn’t be sports any more, like bullfighting and auto racing.
See – I told you it was going to get back around to cars.
Auto racing is environmentally unconscionable. Worse, it’s terrible TV. And yet it’s right up there with football as America’s most popular sport. They’re neck and neck.
A country that prefers football and auto racing to baseball is a country that has already lost its taste, and is in danger of losing its soul.