Capital always wins.
In all other cases, refer to Rule #1.
The Life and Time of a Citizen of Red Sox Nation
I ruminate on the subject because of a pair of controversies that arose recently relating to professional basketball and the upcoming Olympic Games, but first, I shall establish my bona fides.
In preparation for this article, I did a thumbnail calculation of how many total sports events I had listened to on the radio, watched on television or personally attended in my entire life. Um. Wow. I figure a minimum of 6,000, a median of 8,000 and possibly more than 10,000. And I'm actually a relatively normal fiftyish American male. I got a transistor radio when I was about eight and used it to listen to Celtics and Bruins games during the Winter (although I frequently fell asleep before the end on school nights and/or got busted by my Mom listening under the covers) and Red Sox games during the Summer (which I usually made it through). As an adult, I was an average consumer although in different markets as I moved: Most Mariners games and some Sonics games while I lived in Seattle (no hockey there but that was during the great college football run by the Washington Huskies, so more football), SEC football while living in Louisiana, and so forth.
Baseball teams play 162 games a year, so figure I watched or listened to a third of them (that's a conservative estimate); basketball and hockey together is another 162, so figure about a quarter of those, but I missed hockey for about thirty years. Twenty-five football games per year figuring in the local-affiliate team on both the professional and college level. Monday Night Football, miscellany on ESPN, Mike Tyson during his great years on HBO in the mid-1980s, March Madness NCAA basketball--regular stuff.
And I do mean regular--I don't think my consumption is outside normal for a typical fan in a major league media market. Judging by TV ratings, I watch the stuff everyone watches. Yeah, some Sundays I watched two NFL games, but many Thursdays I watched nothing. So let's say I watched or listened to a sporting event every other day.
From the time I got that first radio until today, that's 8,500 events. At least. EIGHT THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED two-or-three-hour blocks of my time. Oh my Lord what a waste of time most of those hours were--boring, predictable, pointless, irritating. Saturday's Red Sox game is a fine example: Not only were they down 8-0 before the end of the second inning, but it was the Fox game, so I had to suffer through Tim McCarver. Thank God for multi-tasking.
But on the other hand, there were some great moments in there. I heard Johnny Most call Havlicek Stealing the Ball in real time, watched Warren Moon win the Rose Bowl, watched Bob Beamon's super-human Long Jump in Mexico City. I was across the street from Fenway Park when Pudge Fisk hit that home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series and saw with mine own eyes that ball hit the foul pole. I watched Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner ..., well, maybe not all "great" moments but memorable moments anyway.
The Best Game
Out of all those games, my favorite, hands down, no contest, my absolute favorite is the Miracle on Ice, USA Hockey's defeat of the Soviets at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1980. Those three hours alone make the other thirty thousand hours worthwhile. Do I believe in Miracles? Actually--No. On that day, friends who had a Canadian feed on their cable system invited us over to watch the real-time action on CBC with Canadian sportscasters, so we had the Olympic hockey equivalent of a Super Bowl party. We watched Al Michaels' most-overrated-call-in-sports-history only later and only for fun (we ended up keeping the party going all the way through the end of ABC's coverage, wouldn't you have, too?). So many things melded together to make that such an indelible incredible experience, from the gathering sharing fun and potato chips, to the entertainment value of the game itself on the ice, to the grand idea of the idea of the United States of America battling the idea of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Somewhere, inside something, there was a rush of greatness.
I watch the Olympics and I care about the Games. And I root for Team USA. Why wouldn't I? That's my team. I realize that sports loyalties are in almost all cases essentially random and seemingly irrational. As intense as the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry may be, the difference between a Yankee fan and a citizen of Red Sox Nation is the 182 miles separating the two cities. If I'd been born in Saint Louis, I'd be a Cardinals fan. If I'd been born in Manchester England England, I'd probably be a United fan (I guess I might be a City fan—but everyone loves a winner). However, I was born in Boston, so I'm a Red Sox fan.
I was born an American, so I root for America ... well, about 95% of the time. For instance, I rooted for Australian Cathy Freeman against Marion Jones in the 2000 Olympics, but not because of any steroids rumors or anything. I just like to see the hometown hero win a medal, and Australia hosted that Olympics. I rooted extra hard for Marion in all her other events to make up for rooting against her in one. But basically, yeah. It's my country, my place, my people, my flag. Damn straight I'll root for them.
So yes. Even though I know it is crazy irrational stupid to feel proud when Kevin Garnett hugs Bill Russell after the Celtics beat the Lakers--I had nothing whatsoever to do with that championship and therefore have nothing to be proud of--I did, in fact, feel proud. Some guy from Oakland who hated Boston for the years he played here decades ago hugging some guy from Chicago who played the previous thirteen years in Minnesota made me proud to be from Boston? How crazy is that? Yet how real.
Texas Used To Be Its Own Country
All this creates a bizarre and paradoxical swirl of subjectivity and confusion ... and anger. We might be able to at least partially untangle it all by looking to, strangely enough, a couple of places in Texas. Or, perhaps, not so strangely. First: In Dallas, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban complained to a Dallas Morning News columnist about the malign (if unintended) consequences of the Olympic Games on NBA franchises. And he seemed to be reaching toward the kind of argument I raise here, although I go a little further than Cuban:
What I don't like is that we lie to ourselves and pretend that the Olympians represent our country.
"They don't. They have taken relatively low paying jobs working for the Olympics, who in turn sell the broadcast and marketing rights for billions of dollars in profits, all the while creating enormous risk for those of us who pay them for their day jobs that support their families. It's amazing how players who are free agents won't participate, but those with guaranteed contracts will.
I hate the fact that we lie to ourselves and pretend this is about representing country. It's not. It's about money. . . .
Can't we just call it the GE Olympic Team?
He does have a point there. The Games have themselves come to not only symbolize virtues, but to exist substantively as profit points for entertainment conglomerates (in this case, NBC-Universal, also part owners of Newsvine). The interests of Capital are directly involved to the extent that tens of billions of dollars in rights fees and advertising revenues are at stake.
But Cuban doesn't go quite far enough.
Sports Fans are a Highly Evolved Species
It is no accident that sports in its modern incarnation arose from and through the era of Industrialization and urbanization from the late 19th century to the present, most especially including--in fact, epitomized by--the Olympic Games, which had the added oooomph of reflecting the establishment and consolidation of the modern nation-state as the foundation of the global order (or disorder). Nation-states required patriotism; the Olympics reinforced the nation-state system, and the Games, then, reinforced patriotism.
Sports functions psychologically and spiritually as a binding force: It holds us to place. In an agrarian society, it is literally the land itself that binds us to the place. But it's easy to love a garden or meadow or field or forest, especially when the turnips or wheat that grow there feed us and are essential to our survival. But who can love a textile mill or a tenement? Moreover, what binds one tenement to another even twenty blocks away in a densely populated metropolis? Generally speaking, the place I am is the place I love, and the place I love is the place I am. I suppose there's some sociobiological explanation for that having to do with the long period of child rearing required for successful human reproduction, but that's for the sociobiologists to figure out. I'm just a sports fan.
Thus, if human nature seeks to construct a subjective attachment to place and if a mode of social organization like Industrialization tends to erode that attachment, then it need be that we will synthesize that impulse through artificial or reinforcing mechanisms such as sports loyalties.
Now, return to rules #1 and #2 above. Robbed of the natural esthetic and personal gratification of agrarian place, the interests of Capital were served by the artificial loyalty of professional sports as the USA led industrialization. A stable, local labor force being needed to keep the unlovely factories humming, one of the binding forces on that population was the local sports franchise. Moreover, the Olympic Games served the additional purpose of reinforcing the nation-state system, which itself served the interests of Capital. The "GE Games" mocked by Mark Cuban were in actuality an accidental by-product of the larger social forces operating. In effect, while in the 20th century the global economic order needed patriotism to sustain itself, now it's simply one of its innumerable commodities.
However, as the world economy has globalized and integrated, Capital, in the form of Multi-national corporations, has sapped elements of sovereignty from nation-states, and with that, one of the reasons for patriotism. The Nation-state global order just doesn't serve the interests of Capital as much as it used to. Oh well. Things change, life goes on, we all have to adapt. And with the waning of patriotism as a mode of feeling, the artificial forms of expressing it become shallow and ungratifying.
In fact, in an age of high mobility on the one hand and telecommuting on the other, the sense of place has less and less to do with our lives--and less and less to do with loyalties, including professional sports franchises. And with the reduction in power of nation-states, the notion of patriotism has less and less to do with the meaningfulness of the Olympic Games. Thus, when Don Nelson, Cuban's former coach for the Mavericks, says:
I couldn't disagree more. It's not about the money. There is pride in these athletes. He ought to have more respect for his country. Everybody in the NBA makes plenty of money. It's not too much to ask that every four years you give something back to your country.
He's kind of missing the point. "The money" that's it's about isn't merely the piddling ten million dollars or so that any individual player is paid (or that any owner might pay that player), it's the multi-billion dollars systemically invested, in the NBA, in the venues, in the broadcast rights and in the franchises.
Don't Put It Down . . . . or Not
Before heading to south Texas, scroll back to the top of this page. See that exquisitely cute sweetheart? Although she looks like your typical corn-fed Midwestern American farm girl-next-door, she's actually the starting point guard on the Russian Women's Olympic basketball team.
But she is a corn-fed Midwestern American farm girl. She's Becky Hammon, native of Rapid City, South Dakota, college ball at Colorado State, veteran player in the WNBA, mostly for the New York Liberty though she plays now for the San Antonio Silver Stars. I copied her name in Cyrillic text from the Russian language press release announcing that she had been granted Russian citizenship--by direct edict of Vladimir Putin on February 28th last.
And, it turns out, Anne Donovan, the coach of Team USA's Women's basketball team, is not too happy about it all:
If you play in this country, live in this country, and you grow up in the heartland and you put on a Russian uniform, you are not a patriotic person in my mind.
But, like Nelson, Donovan is missing the point, too. Or missing a point, anyway. [For the record: There are back stories of hostility in both the Nelson/Cuban and Donovan/Hammon relationships, but they have little bearing on my argument. Google up the details.] When you live in a global political economy that values economic efficiency and return on investment above all else, an economic system that has no place for place, just exactly what order of values do you expect those in the system to adopt? As Nelson stupidly believes that Cuban should risk his NBA franchise to serve NBC-Universal's broadcasting profits, Donovan seems to stupidly believe that Hammon should sacrifice her individual financial security to Donovan's potential success (and financial reward) as a medal-winning Olympic coach.
There's a new world out there, whether Don Nelson and Anne Donovan like it or not. Free trade and the free flow of Capital mean, well, free. We live in a Free Agent Nation now, and increasingly and deliberately in a Free Agent World. That is the imperative of Capital, for which, see rule #1.
Point guards are worth something to the bottom line, not least to the point guard, just as much as those made-in-Indonesia athletic shoes we wear are worth a couple of dollars a day to the laborers Hammon is
But she doesn't, and shouldn't, believe those lies. Not if she wants the Gold everyone else in the world wants.