When City Slickers came out twenty years ago, it was obviously no Citizen Kane. It had a few funny one-liners and Jack Palance’s screen outlaw archetype was finally rehabilitated, but, beyond that, it was just a late 30-something’s feel-good dither on lukewarm masculinity at the end of the 20th century. But there was some dialogue I’ve never forgotten.
It comes in the early middle of the movie when the lone female “city slicker” asks her male counterparts why baseball is so important to them. Phil Berquist (played by Daniel Stern) responds: “When I was about eighteen and my dad and I couldn’t communicate about anything at all, we could still talk about baseball. Now that was real.”
The moment is at least mildly poignant, first, because it’s obvious Phil loved his father deeply and baseball provided them a “real” forum to communicate through. Second, because even though Phil and his dad loved each other, the only way they could relate was through the clichéd, statistical vernacular of a wholly inconsequential children’s game played by grown men.
Berquist’s statement—the pathetic nature of which is never really considered or expounded upon—is still ludicrously germane to any discussion of American manhood today because sports frame the American male psyche.
Generally speaking, sports define early male ego and often establish a basic though flawed criterion for prepubescent, pubescent and young adult male worthiness in terms of socialization, popularity and, yes, even procreation. Sports establish a cultural norm that men have a hard time giving up and/or trying not to live up to even years after they’re physically able to do so. That’s where collegiate and professional sports come in.
Collegiate and professional sports allow grown men to continue participating in the defining norm of their youth peripherally, passionately extolling the virtues of the spectacle and, on some level, competing vicariously though each generation that follows in their footsteps. This is why most elderly men know more about Mickey Mantle than McCarthyism. This is why most middle-aged men know more about Michael Jordan than the Iran-Contra Scandal.
Plainly put, professional and collegiate sports are a colossal drain on the American male (and female—but male in particular) attention span and they keep him from seriously focusing on dozens of events and developments that more directly and eminently affect his existence. And the little background and understanding that too many American men do have regarding these phenomena is largely gathered cursorily through slanted cable news or belligerent talk radio. It is a dire cultural and societal problem.
The Texas Rangers have a wildly successful ticket sales campaign that says “Get your Texas Rangers Tickets now and watch history being made.” Except history isn’t being made by the Texas Rangers, especially not in any real, relevant, or broadly meaningful respect. And it’s not being made by the Dallas Cowboys, the Dallas Mavericks, or anyone racing out at Texas Motor Speedway either.
Real history is not made by grown-ups who play children’s games or folks obsessed with Hot Wheels for adults. It’s made by serious people addressing serious problems. It’s made by protestors and visionaries. It’s made by leaders and inventors. It’s made by heroes and contrarians.
History is not reported in the sports pages and you won’t find it on a baseball diamond or football gridiron or under a basketball net.
That’s why American men, in particular, must be called out. Their self-indulgent, superficial dalliances with college and professional sports now start in August and preoccupy them all year round. Football. Nibs of hockey. Basketball. World Series. More football. Bowl games. Baseball training camps. March Madness, Baseball, NFL draft, more baseball, NFL training camps. Then tailgate and repeat.
If an insidious presence in this country had actually investigated, researched and formulated a long-term societal scheme to limit meaningful male participation in and broad awareness of the most profound cultural and political processes and events of our time (or any time), I’m not sure they could have come up with a better idea than American sports. They are now scheduled so perfectly that they keep a daunting percentage of the male population from ever having to think real hard about much else besides sports. They go from one season to another, following overlapping seasons concurrently. They buy season tickets. They join fantasy leagues. They keep statistics. They participate in office game and tournament pools. They bet with bookies. Their obsession with college and professional sports is so profound that college coaches make more money than tenured professors and professional children’s-game stars make more in one contest than good elementary, junior high or high school teachers make in an entire year (including summer school duty).
Think about that for a second. Isn’t it markedly unreal?
When sports are more real and more valuable to us than our children’s educations, aren’t we lost, gone astray and courting cultural disaster?
Isn’t about time we men put down our pom-poms? Don’t we have more important stats to keep track of? Shouldn’t we concern ourselves with more pressing issues?
History is being made these days, but mostly without our involvement and certainly without our consent. And the teams that are winning “most definitely” want to keep it that way.