Sports in the US: Year-Round Madness

Article excerpt

From the bracketology of March Madness to ESPN Everything, sports has become one of the most pervasive forces in American culture. Is it a great unifying force or a sign of misplaced priorities?

After spending his entire life cheering for the Boston Red Sox, Bowdoin College sophomore Chris McCann was so over the moon when the team clinched a World Series spot in 2004 that he forgot an important French exam. Not to worry - his professor was a fan, too, and let him make it up later.

Jennie Chan, a 2009 Boston University graduate, thinks nothing of spending 85 percent of her income traveling to college games - even more, she admits, if you count all the T-shirts and trinkets she's purchased, not to mention the highway billboard touting her team loyalty.

By most accounts, Martha Coakley, the attorney general of Massachusetts, ran a rote campaign in her recent bid for the US Senate, which contributed to her loss to Republican Scott Brown. But in the three-deckers and sports bars around Boston, her defeat is traced to something else - the day she mistakenly identified Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling as a Yankees fan.

How crazy are New Englanders when it comes to sports? How crazy are all of us, for that matter?

While Boston may be a bit manic about its pitchers and parquet flooring, more and more people throughout the United States are expressing a near-tribal affiliation to a particular sport, or, more particularly, to a sports team.

At a time when the economy is faltering, wars are raging, and the future seems worrisome on a good day, many are looking to sports as a source not merely of distraction, but of personal identification. It's gotten to the point where English may no longer be our official language. Sports might be.

We listen to it endlessly on talk radio. We chat about it over the cubicles at work. We push our kids into it when they are still in their Maclaren strollers. We spend vast amounts of money on everything from LeBron James jerseys to greens fees: The National Sporting Goods Association estimates that sports represents a $441 billion industry in the US - the same as the gross domestic product of Norway.

Nor are Americans alone in their passion. Consider any soccer match in Europe. Or the priest in Vancouver, British Columbia, who was asked if he would skip a Sunday mass that threatened to conflict with the US-Canada Olympic hockey face-off. No, said the priest - but he would wrap it up in 15 minutes.

All this is hardly a bad thing. Sports, after all, teaches us about discipline and how to play with others. It gives us a diversion from the mundane aspects of human existence. It makes us less sedate and more communal.

"In a world where most people can't agree on anything, people can agree on a passionate interest in sports," says John Skipper, executive vice president of content at ESPN, the sports network.

Even more broadly, it is one of the few phenomena that can transcend race and class divisions, becoming what Bill Littlefield, who hosts a sports show on National Public Radio, calls a "marvelously easy social lubricant." "It's much easier to talk about that than subjects that require actual knowledge, such as the economy or healthcare packages or whether or not we should be invading more countries," he says. "It's sort of ... a feeling of belonging that is easy to get, easy to achieve."

Sports, in another words, may be the closest thing Americans have to a national hearth. "Sports is one of the most overt and direct expressions of community identity that we have in our society," says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

But has our love affair with sports gone too far? Something certainly is out of whack in a culture when marriages can crumble over obsessive sports worship; when friendships fracture over a clipping call; when hours of productivity are lost to sitting in front of a TV or computer screen, watching games, reading jock blogs, or lingering over online sports sites. …