It all began-as did so many other bad things-in the sixties. It was during that obsessively political decade that sportswriters apparently decided that if they were to be thought of as Serious People, they would have to become seriously political-while they remained sportswriters. And so we got, for the first time, the sportswriter as social critic. The malady is with us still, and it threatens to make reading the sports pages, normally a welcome diversion from real life, as grim an exercise as forcing one's way through the latest atrocities in Bosnia or idiocies within the Beltway.
I was living in Canada during the sixties, and it made the problem worse. Canadian writers on sports, especially American sports, not only caught the seriousness bug-they compounded it with the anti-Americanism that is the most enduring element in the Canadian identity. The Vietnam War was a godsend to Canadians. It allowed them fully to indulge the sense of moral superiority over the Empire to the South that justifies the existence of an otherwise improbable nation. Canadian sportswriters focused especially, for some reason, on pro football, the Super Bowl in particular. It became the Ur-symbol of American imperialism, the embodiment of the mindlessness, garishness, commercialism, brutality, and general wretched excess that, for many Canadians, summarizes life south of the forty-ninth parallel. (They could even drag in racism: why were there no black quarterbacks?) The terms of the game-blitz, long bomb-took on obvious and ominous meaning.
The sixties are gone and I've long since left Canada, but the problem remains. It has, in fact, been exacerbated by the recent baseball and hockey strikes, not to mention the inevitable speculation over what the O. J. Simpson case tells us about the dark underside of American jockdom. These and other stories-which do have to be reported and analyzed, of course-feed the unfortunate propensity of modern sportswriters to regularly deliver themselves of solemnities on the state of the nation as revealed on its playing fields.
Now when sportswriters become social critics, they do not distribute themselves randomly across the political spectrum. They congregate overwhelmingly on the left. Indeed, one might say that the sports pages have joined the mainline churches and the universities as refuges for the left-liberalism that has lost fashion almost everyplace else in American life. Some might argue that my perspective is skewed because my daily newspaper is the New York Times. Since everyone else on the Times except William Safire is a liberal, why should the sportswriters be any different? But I don't recall that things were otherwise when my regular paper was the Chicago Tribune, not normally thought of as knee-jerk liberal in its orientation.
It makes little difference, in my experience, what paper you read. The sportswriters produce a predictable litany concerning America's predominant racism and sexism, and conflicts between labor and management are regularly construed as if we were back in the world of Waiting for Lefty, even when, as in the baseball strike, the working stiffs have a median wage of half-a-million dollars a year. Wage slaves, after all, are still wage slaves, and fashionable people know the correct answer to the perennial question, "Which side are you on?" Even when the greed of athletes is acknowledged, the greed of the owners is presented as of a higher, morally more degraded, order.
The specter of political correctness even came close to ruining Ken Burns' otherwise admirable PBS film, Baseball. Aside from its tendency to approximate baseball's greatest weakness-is this game ever going to end?-the nine-part documentary most undercut itself by its preachiness. The history of baseball threatened at times to become one long lesson on American racism.
The problem, as in any other presentation of the American past, is one of proportion and perspective. Racism scarred America indelibly; it was not the essence of the national experience. Similarly, it was necessary for Ken Burns to present fully the story of the Negro Leagues and of the exclusion of blacks from major league baseball prior to Jackie Robinson; it was a distortion for him to make those items the centerpiece of the history of the game.
As with so many historical revisionists, Burns falls prey to anachronism. Take, for example, his treatment of Ty Cobb. Cobb was a great player, arguably the greatest hitter of all time. Burns recognizes Cobb's greatness, but he spends disproportionate time emphasizing Cobb's manifold failures as a human being. (No other player receives this treatment. Babe Ruth's whoring and boozing, for example, are acknowledged but implicitly excused as elements in the life of a large- hearted man.) The element of Cobb's nastiness most emphasized by Burns is his racism. But Cobb was born and raised in Georgia, and most white Georgians of his time were, to one degree or another, racists. That historical circumstance doesn't excuse Cobb, but it does make his retrograde racial attitudes unremarkable, except for someone insistent on composing a tidy moral tale.
The major issue in all this, it must be emphasized, is not lack of ideological balance. The larger problem, of which sports is but one instance, is the apparently inexorable intrusion of politics into every area of American life, and the problem of pervasive politicization will hardly be cured by signing up Rush Limbaugh as a sports columnist. Conservatives, in any case, are not automatically to be trusted when they address sports. George Will has written marvelously about the national pastime, but it is, finally, a silly conceit to insist that if you are truly to know America, you must know baseball.
Those who write about sports need to impose on themselves a rigorous discipline: resist with self-denying intensity the temptation to treat sports as metaphor, allegory, or anything beyond itself. A cigar, Freud noted, is sometimes just a cigar. Just so, and the Super Bowl is always just a football game. It does not make it less to refuse to make it more.
The grace of sports is that it at least momentarily relieves us-often with genuine delight and joy-from the burdens that life visits on us. (Even if-as, for example, with Cubs or Indians fans-you become familiar less with the thrill of victory than the agony of defeat.) We can lose ourselves without guilt in things, ultimately insignificant, that we nonetheless unreservedly give ourselves over to in a welcome respite from the weight of seriousness. Leave the boys of summer and of other seasons, along with the rest of us, to our games.