by Lance Tapley
The Anti-Fan Blogger

The depth of the problem

Recently I went to a Celtics – Miami Heat game in the TD Garden in Boston. I had last been to a professional basketball game 50 years before, in the old Garden, when I was a college freshman. So I was the proverbial anthropologist from Mars making a visit to the strange planet Earth.

I was shocked. All the commercialism, devotion to spectacle, and partisanship in American life seemed condensed into three hours in a dazzling, deafening cavern.

Giant video screens dominated the court, showing the action close-up and multiple times, so it was tempting to watch the game on these TV screens even though the players were in front of me in the flesh. Commercials flashed on the screens at every pause in the action. During time-outs, the announcer sold things. A display of electronic words and logos continuously ran above the court, selling products and celebrating sponsors. Big signs ringed the arena: Bud Light, New Balance, Dunkin’ Donuts. Did I mention that the arena had sold its name to a bank?

At various points “Louder! Louder! Louder!” exploded on the screens, exhorting the fans. I wished I had brought earplugs. The overexcited announcer continually whipped up partisanship, and the Celtics fans booed like louts whenever Miami made a point and, especially, when superstar LeBron James went to the foul line.

There were so many distractions it was hard to concentrate on the fine performance of the athletes. I didn’t remember my long-ago Boston Garden experience as being like this. I mentioned these thoughts to a sportswriter with whom I had struck up a conversation. “It isn’t about the game anymore,” he said dryly.

For sure, the designers of this experience didn’t think the game would be enough. There were sexy dancing girls, a lottery, and a half-court free-throw contest for fans. The video displays showed close-ups of audience members making fools of themselves.

This extravaganza seemed an intensification of the razzle-dazzle of a game on TV, with even greater commercial frenzy. The experience should be intense, I reasoned, if you’re paying more than $100 a ticket for it.

The arena experience, of course, represents just one of the numerous ways commerce dominates sports. Everybody recognizes this domination. It’s a common joke. League of Fans has been established in large part to counter it.

I would argue that sports commercialism is not just wide, it’s immensely deep, and its depth has ramifications for the potential reformers the League of Fans speaks to. To understand how deep, we need to step back and look at American society as a whole.
To succeed, the commercialism of sellers must be paired with the materialism of buyers. And Americans have not thoughtfully, carefully chosen frantic materialism as the way to pass much of their lives.

Materialism, not simply the buying of specific goods and services, but a life of spending one’s time working to buy things and then buying, buying, buying — this, too, has been marketed.

To borrow from Marshall McLuhan, materialism is the medium of many messages. Human vulnerability to this medium, with its scientifically designed, ubiquitous, repetitious messages leading the “consumer” to consume, has turned out to be enormous. We now rarely use the word “person” or “citizen” to describe an American’s central role in society.

Recently the market’s deep domination of society has been called into question by Occupy Wall Street and, on a scholarly level, by Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.” This questioning, though, has been taking place at least since Karl Marx.

Although League of Fans is part of this questioning, there’s an irony in the organization’s name. The depth of the market’s domination of sports parallels the creation of the fan (from fanatic, with the root meaning of insanity).

Although the fan phenomenon was underway in the 1920s, as mass marketing was revved up by magazines and radio, the spectator-fan has been developed and contoured chiefly by television’s ability to generate and deliver to advertisers a gigantic audience — and, therefore, a true mass market and culture. This development depends upon the exploitation of another human vulnerability, the widely documented need to do what others are doing, to conform.

I’m hardly the first to suggest that the television, advertising, and professional-sports industries have reshaped much of American recreation into a huge block of sedentary fan-consumers who support a small elite of competitive performers (read the League’s Sports Manifesto, for example). At the apex are the multimillionaire football, basketball, and baseball gladiators on national television and, behind the scenes, their employers.

Enormous financial stakes depend on this system. Such a structure cannot help be “better” for the economy than a nation of mere sports participants. A fan is a consumer not only of cable TV and stadium sports events, but also of innumerable advertising messages and the goods and services they sell, which have no necessary connection to sports.

Fans idolize the gladiatorial winners, and they participate in the glory reflected from television screens by way of the heavily marketed partisanship phenomenon, which glues them tighter to the screens. But inasmuch as they are fans to the detriment of being physically active, they are losers.

Does social-science research support the idea that fandom and sports participation are opposed to each other? As far as I can tell, no one has studied whether time spent watching TV sports directly subtracts from sports participation. Generally, studies of physical recreation are fraught with methodological problems. But some facts are well established.

Over decades, American physical activity has lessened greatly. For decades, too, TV viewing and now many other kinds of screen viewing have increased to almost unbelievable amounts of time. Americans have become very unfit. The steadily rising incidence of obesity has been associated closely with hours spent watching TV.

Television is the principal medium of the fan experience. According to a 2011 Harris Poll, two-thirds of Americans watch NFL football on TV, almost three-quarters of the men. Over a quarter of the men spend six to ten hours a week watching it.

Connect the thoughts. Given the amount of time people spend in front of TV and other screens, and given the devotion to watching sports, can a fan be otherwise than a replacement for a participant? Obviously, this is not universally true; some people are both.

As the League’s Sports Manifesto recognizes, there are many and subtle effects from the economic forces creating the separation in sports between the competitive, highly rewarded, “producing” elite and the sedentary consumers. In American high schools and colleges, highly glorified varsity teams have soundly defeated intramural sports. Why? If the objective is to serve the largest number of young people, the choice doesn’t make sense. Most parents and players would not have thoughtfully, carefully made this choice. But television and other mass media are such a huge part of daily life for most people that media glorification of sports elites has established a model. Even down to levels where money is not heavily involved, sports elites dominate.

In the YMCA locker room I overheard a couple of children’s baseball coaches talk about the dominance of the “all-star” and “travel” teams in our small city.

“I just don’t think it’s right for so much attention to be given them,” protested one man. “I mean, these are only eight-nine-ten-eleven-year-old kids! How do you think that makes all the kids not chosen for the teams feel? They feel like they’re losers! I don’t believe in pegging kids as winners and losers at that age.”

If commercialism/materialism is so profound and subtle, aren’t we dealing with a truly monstrous force? We’re currently seeing that this force’s ideology — free-market capitalism, we call it — sets practically no restraint on the domain of moneymaking. The private market has begun to devour schools, hospitals, and prisons. Shopping has snatched up much family free time.

When nearly every free activity and institution has become an opportunity to be exploited by entrepreneurs or a competitor to be eliminated by corporations, it’s no surprise that the market has conquered much of recreation.

So my question is: Given the great depth of the phenomenon I have described, in which the commercialization of American sports is part of an enormous shaping of the entire society, how can the sports system be reformed? Specifically, how can it be reformed by the people called fans, when they’re a big part of the problem? In particular, how can we reverse the damages by the American sports system to mass participation in sports?

I’ll explore these questions in future blogs, but before I express them I would love to hear from others.

Email me at [email protected].

Lance Tapley is a guest blogger for League of Fans and a freelance reporter based in Maine.


Unfairness in School Athletic Fees

[Editor’s Note: Mary Collier wrote League of Fans that she “really enjoyed” the above blog. She agreed especially with: “In American high schools and colleges, highly glorified varsity teams have soundly defeated intramural sports. Why?” In her community of Beavercreek, Ohio, families are being asked to pay hundreds of dollars, with big increases year-to-year, for their children to participate in athletics and other after-school activities. Here is her comment on that issue.]

I am aware of a multistate movement called PE4Life which advocates school programs that connect with all students. Why aren’t our local schools discussing these approaches as opposed to the traditional varsity-team approach that excludes the majority of students, has become very commercialized, and drives up facilities, transportation, and liability costs? Most people give up these varsity sports and their risk of injuries by adulthood and replace them with walking, gym workouts, etc.

It should also be noted that these pay-to-participate fee increases still do not offset the costs to the school district, the taxpayers, and academic opportunities of all students, most of whom are not participating and not allowed to participate on various varsity teams.

For many years in Beavercreek, these varsity sports activities were subsidized by tax dollars to a greater extent than were miscellaneous class and workbook fees for all students. Class and workbook fees can also financially stress families. Those expenses should be offset by tax dollars before after-school sports and other after-school activities because they are more directly connected to the core mission of schools and education.

As usual, these issues are usually presented from the angle of benefits to “student athletes” and their families. What about the majority of students and their families who receive none of these benefits and experience the financial stresses in the classroom?

For that matter, what about the majority of college students who pay student loans and fees to subsidize athletic departments, multimillion-dollar coaches, and expenses for “student athletes”? Our entire approach for physical fitness, and how that applies to our education system and students, is broken.

Mary Collier
Beavercreek, Ohio


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