Thursday, July 01, 2004

I don't normally do rants in this space. Unless you're very, very skilled at invective, they're generally boring to read, and as I get older I'm becoming less and less interested in strident hatred and somewhat more tolerant towards the billions of things that irritate me. (Admittedly, the Thorazine is also a contributing factor here.) But this noxious column by the awful Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti has forced me to flog one of my favorite hobby horses - the irritating tendency of sportswriters to set themselves up as the moral arbiters of the entire nation. I'm not sure what I loathe most about this piece. The insane overreaction to an unfortunate but common incident in places where alcohol is consumed, with as many shame-inducing adjectives as humanly possible? The statement that anyone who doesn't share the author's hysterical indignation is no worse than the people who physically beat up someone? The general argument that America is plunging into debauchery of Caligula's Rome or Studio 54 proportions because some loons hit a guy at a ballgame?

Mariotti is hardly the only one who does this. The noxious Rick Reilly has been filling the back page of Sports Illustrated with fingers points in a shaming fashion for almost two decades now. And Phil Mushnick of the New York Post manages three columns a week, each of which makes the argument that sports and the society that spawned them has found a deeper and deeper sewer to wallow in. (It should be noted that Mushnick has never mentioned the irony or hypocrisy implicit in writing this sort of column in the FUCKING NEW YORK FUCKING POST, nestled in between ads for Asian massage parlors and escort services.) In fact, scratch any sports columnist (with the notable exception of Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle, perhaps the only writer in the country who has some a realistic idea of how sports actually fits into society), and you'll find a budding Carry Nation who will never pass up the opportunity to earnestly wring their hands over the fact that athletes and fans are human beings and don't generally act like Wheaties box models every minute of their lives.

Why? I have a few theories. Most of these columnists are baby boomers and the boomer generation is in full jeremiad mode at this point. Combine the boomer generation's stranglehold on the media with the universal tendency to decry the way things are and long for a nonexistent age of past glories, and we'll be hearing this sort of doomsaying until the last one of them retires. And let's face it, everyone enjoys the sweet buzz of feeling morally superior to someone else, and they're just lucky enough to get a public forum to express theirs. But I suspect the main factor is that sportswriters have a hard time accepting or even embracing the reality that they essentially provide the same service as the guy who writes the Junior Jumble. They're providing entertainment, not information that's viewed as important or relevant, and most people will take them less seriously than general news reporters. So, what do you do with those feelings of inadequacy and jealousy? You turn on Barry Bonds, or a couple of guys who get into a fight at a ballpark, and hold them up as examples of a society gone hellishly wrong. Sports is a microcosm of society, after all! (Except that everyone's wealthy, receives massive amounts of public adulation, and has skills that are extremely rare and considered valuable by society. Otherwise, they're entirely comparable to us normal types.)

So, sportswriters of America, I have a simple request. Please stick to discussing trades and demanding that owners fire coaches. Hang out with the people who write the style page, who have a better idea of where they fit into the media spectrum. (Except for Lynn Johnston. I think I'd rather read 100 columns about what a bad guy Barry Bonds is than one "For Better or For Worse" strip.) Providing entertainment is a noble goal. Embrace your "irrelevance": serious news reporting is an overrated gig anyway. Just be thankful that you don't spend your waking hours at city hall meetings or rewriting the police blotter.

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