Graydon Gordian is the author of the blog 48 Minutes of Hell. His HustleJunkie column runs weekly here on HP. This week he discusses basketball's viability as the national pastime, and the perception of basketball in America.
Although the sun may rise early and set late in these waning summer days, this is the darkest time of year for the basketball fan. The Summer League and Olympics have passed us by. The majority of off-season signings have occurred. Baseball teams have begun jockeying for position just as we hear the first autumnal groans of the sleeping giant that is football. The American sports fan’s consciousness is never further from basketball than it is right now. With this in mind, HustleJunkie will step off the hardwood and survey the American sports landscape as a whole. (Don’t worry. There’ll be basketball, just other stuff too.)
In Roland Barthes’ “What is Sport?” the French philosopher sets out to answer the title’s question by analyzing four unique national sports: Spanish bullfighting, French cycling, Italian racing, and English football (soccer). Barthes' continental sensibilities may have been why he chose to ignore the cornucopia of athletic pursuits offered in the United States, but the cornucopia itself may be the exact reason: Which of the many professional sports in America would he have identified as most uniquely indicative of our national culture? Being that Mr. Barthes has chosen to ignore the question, we will address it here today.
Baseball, known as the national pastime, has the most storied history of any of the American games. The first professional sport in the United States (if one discounts boxing, which seems to inhabit a different sphere of influence than the other professional sports and finds its origins much further back in history), names such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays still frequent the tales parents tell their sons and daughters about sporting legends of old.
But in some ways baseball no longer seems indicative of our national character. A nineteenth-century pastoral game, its casual pace seems ill-suited for the speed and immediacy of postmodern American life. Games oftentimes occur during the workday, and the position of the players on the field is rather static, making it almost more pleasurable to listen to a game on the radio than watch one on TV (emphasis on almost). As Will Leitch noted recently in an emeritus piece for Deadspin, home runs, the most spectacular occurrence in baseball, are actually kind of uninteresting when presented amidst a highlight reel. Even as the game has globalized, the nationalities involved speak to a by-gone geopolitical era: East Asians and Latinos were taught to play baseball by American soldiers stationed there during the first half of the 20th century.
At first glance, football seems to have replaced baseball as the true American game. During the fall, Sundays (and Saturdays for the college football fan) are completely organized around watching football for many Americans. The Super Bowl’s television ratings dwarf both the NBA Finals and the World Series (not to mention the Stanley Cup Finals. No, really. I don’t know anything about hockey so from here on out I won’t be mentioning the sport. Sorry, puck fans). As America looks back on a century of imperium, no game seems to capture America’s ideal vision of itself more than football: A game baroque in its complexity, presented on the grandest of stages, and yet fundamentally won by the up-by-your-bootstraps tenacity Americans prize.
And yet simultaneously no game is so physically divorced from the recreation of actual Americans. Aside from the fact that I play basketball on a much lower skill level, I fundamentally play the exact same game as occurs in the NBA. Same goes for baseball, if you acknowledge that the speed of the pitch is much higher in the major leagues. But the last time I put on pads and a helmet was when I quit playing high school football. I’ve played pick-up tackle football, but anybody who has played real tackle football can tell you that pick-up and organized football hardly compare. If anything, pick-up football gets less entertaining as you increase the number of players: if you really play 11 on 11 in the park with your buddies, far too many players are relegated to the ceaseless boredom of the offensive line. Football may dominate our lives as “consumers” (if one thinks of watching TV as a form of consumption) but for those of us who partake in lifelong amateur athletics, it is the most distant.
This brings us to basketball. Basketball is probably the least popular of the three sports discussed here but in some ways the most honest. If football lays before us a heroic vision of ourselves, the state of the NBA more accurately reflects the state of the nation, for better or for worse. As cold-war tensions collapsed during the 90's amidst the ease and enthusiasm of technological democratization and record low oil prices, our television screens were dominated by the high-flying theatrics and smile filled advertisements of none other than MJ himself. And as the NBA struggled to awake from its post-Jordan malaise, the country struggled to find its way as it was abruptly thrown back into the push and pull of a Manichean history many falsely believed we had permanently left behind.
And now, basketball finds itself at the heart of our national politics. Whichever party assumes control of the White House come November, America will have its first basketball player in the executive branch. Obama’s love of the game is well noted, but with the selection of Sarah Palin to be McCain’s running mate, half of the presidential ticket of both parties is made up of former players. Palin may have traded in her high-tops to become a “hockey mom” but black and white images of her scrappy point guard play have already begun to make their way around the internet.
Will either McCain or Obama’s election mean a change in public opinion regarding the sport? Without betraying any partisan allegiances, a sober assessment would seem to suggest that Obama has done a better job bringing the game front and center: He still actively plays, plans on installing a court at the White House, and likely garners a considerably larger amount of support from NBA players than McCain. Either candidate’s relationship to any sport is a terrible reason to vote for or against them; I am just making an observation.
It’s unclear to me that there truly is “an American game.” If anything, the myriad of sports we play speaks to the idea that there is no single American culture, no particular ideology or set of values which must by default determine our way of life. As a living, breathing amalgamation of ethnic and cultural differences, the undefinability of our national character is one of the things I love most about this country.