Roman Gladiators

Forget about the nobility of the Olympic spirit or old time sportsmanship. Today, professional sports is just Bread and Circuses for the Great Recession.

If junk food contains little nutrition without the benefits of real food, then junk sports provide only empty entertainment without the benefits of real sports.

Rather than inspiring ordinary people to become healthy and achieve their physical and mental potential in cooperation with others, junk sports encourage laziness, celebrity-worship and über-competitiveness.

It’s perfect for an age of diminishing prospects. An age of unemployment, cynicism and fear.

We already know that today’s professional sports have been cheapened by obscene levels of advertising and commercialism.

You can’t use any other term but Bread and Circuses to comprehend the massive amounts of cash and attention that America lavishes on the chance for ordinary Joes to surround themselves with ads and watch pumped up millionaires play at the former Enron Field in Houston, the Coliseum in Oakland, or the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.

Sounds like the movie Idiocracy, where the president of the United States is sponsored by “Uhmerican Exxxpress.”

But nobody talks about the bigger problem that sports have become a self-referential mass media product detached from the rest of our culture. In the past, sports used to be about things that mattered in a healthy society: local pride, the deserved payoff from talent honed in hard work and even showcasing skills gained in meaningful employment.

Today, sports are only about sports.

Root, root, root for the home team

Think about it. The only thing local about a professional or college sports team these days is its name (and not always that).

But, like the names of housing subdivisions that all too often just memorialize what was plowed under to build the development itself (say, Oak Pond or Clover Farm), team names are often just cruel reminders about what a place has lost.

There are lots of closed factories in the hometown of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In West Virginia, where you’ll find the Mountaineers, the coal industry is blowing off mountaintops faster than you can cry “foul!” And the Redskins, Blackhawks and other Indian tribe names speak for themselves.

It used to matter that the Dodgers came from Brooklyn and that hockey was for Canadians.

These days, most players weren’t raised in your town and didn’t come up through the local Boys Club. Players may not stick around long either and fans who root for a favorite may find him on the other team next season. A national market for talent means that today’s Dodgers get no special sauce from playing in L.A. rather than in some other town.

Meanwhile, it seems like every place is getting into every sport as much as every other place.

You don’t need to live in Calgary or Edmonton anymore to have a hockey team. In the age of cheap energy and indoor ice rinks, if you like your weather hot but your hockey on ice, you can root for the Florida Panthers or the Arizona Sundogs. Who cares if there’s a local tradition of hockey culture or not — any city with enough cash can just buy itself a team.

Chalk it up to standardization, but a pro sports franchise has become about as local as a Burger King franchise.

After all, it’s not like Penn State wears uniforms of woven of Lancaster County homespun and hand sewn by Amish tailors. And I’ve never heard that the New England Patriots take inspiration for their field strategy from the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

All play and no work

The beef that economist Karl Polanyi had with capitalism was that it “disembodied” economic activity from the community. Throughout history, work had been seamlessly woven in with family, religion, government and nature. But the industrial revolution turned labor and land into commodities to be bought and sold, pulling both human and natural resources out of their accustomed context, leading to alienating work that wasted resources and created pollution.

The same goes for sports.

Sports weren’t always about mindless leisure. Like work, sports also used to be integrated into society and particularly, into jobs and work.

Logging sent lumberjacks up poles, farming spawned oxen, horse and tractor pulls and even bootlegging inspired NASCAR.

Such contests encouraged workers in various fields to build valuable skills while showcasing the grace and beauty of their work to the outside world.

Hunting, surely the world’s second oldest profession, gave us classic Olympic events like javelin throwing, archery and riflery. Mounted cavalry inspired horse racing and polo while hand-to-hand combat produced wrestling and boxing.

Sportscasters can’t help themselves from comparing sports to war. But otherwise, the connection of spectator sports to any kind of work has been almost entirely lost.

Today’s professional and college sports don’t show off skills that ordinary people need in their jobs, or really, anywhere else in their lives.

Despite books authored each year by coaches claiming that baseball will turn you into such a good corporate manager that you’re sure to eventually make CEO or at least VP of Marketing, all the specialized skills that athletes work so hard to hone — throwing, kicking, hitting, dribbling, dunking, passing and the like — are useful only in one place. In a sports game, that is. Or maybe also in a street brawl.

Just try and tackle the receptionist at the office and you’ll see. Sports skills don’t transfer easily into the workplace.

Entertainment or transcendence?

The link between society and a healthy sports scene has been broken, to the detriment of both society and sports.

But a pathological version of the former link does remain. And its purest manifestation is the Super Fan.

The Super Fan is an ordinary person who apparently believes that, by following a sports team with religious fervor, he can transcend everyday life and realize a deeper level of meaning in existence.

The Super Fan will not merely invest thousands of dollars yearly in season tickets. But he will show up to the game wearing warpaint and carrying such tribal weapons as noisemakers or a foam “number one” finger.

A Super Fan who wants to join the aristocracy of Super Fans must commit to attend the holy of holies of the sports world.

No, I don’t mean the Olympics. I mean the Super Bowl.

And undertaking this feat has much in common with the religious pilgrimage of yore.

Before the days of cheap short-haul flights and motorcoach tours, it was so difficult to travel to such spots as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostella that successful pilgrims won glory and honor for the rest of their lives from a society that admired the sacrifices they’d made to get closer to their God.

Even these days, in Islam, a pilgrim who has performed the Hajj to Mecca still earns a special title of honor, Haji, that he can thenceforth put before his name.

You don’t yet earn any kind of title for making an expedition to the Super Bowl. But this pilgrimage can also be difficult and expensive.

With seats in nosebleed going for $2,000 or more, a room at a budget motel for $800 a night, a rental car for $430 with parking at $500 per day, not to mention airfare, food and souvenirs, a trip to the Super Bowl can run $25,000 or more per person.

Surely, such expense can only be justified if the Super Fan views his Super Bowl expedition as a life achievement comparable to, say, the glory won by the knight in the Crusader army of Richard Coeur de Lion in driving the army of Saladin from the stone citadel of Acre.