Sportz Make You Stupid

by Kyle Whelliston

Tuesday, November 3, 2009 · Season 6
TMM-1400 · 1,797 words · 8 min read


Sports are great. Actual participation is awesome, but watching other people do sports can still be pretty good too. These days, people can watch sports anytime, anywhere and in whatever state of undress they choose. These are truly the days of miracles and wonders! All thanks to the Sports-Industrial Complex, which brought you mantertainment, lite beer and the Sports Bubble.

When sports became industrialized in the latter part of the 20th Century, the S.I.C. became the conduit between the viewer and the games, between you and your sports. That was the original idea, anyway. What happened instead was that consumer intelligence was insulted in spite of the action. Instead of bringing sports to the public in absentia, the delivery mechanism ended up sending something else entirely -- non-analytical analysis, lifestyle features, reference comedy, "babes," sports that aren't sports, and a frat party that never ends. It's all something I call "sportz."

You probably know sportz-with-a-Z when you see it, because you feel it. It produces a visceral reaction that's unmistakable. Every time a television commentator says something like "a walk's as good as a hit" or "both sides of the football" or "upside," it makes you angry and sick. It diminishes your mental capacity. A world full of cumulative points should never decrease something like your I.Q..

The S.I.C. is made up of hundreds of television channels, thousands of websites, and a rack full of magazines. There are also 11 or 12 surviving newspapers, which all have websites too. All must have fresh content on a 24/7 basis, way too much for anyone to worry about constant high standards. Quality always suffers when there are too many glasses and not enough wine.

But that's too logical a reason for sportz, and it doesn't cover the true reality of the situation. The depth of this horrible conspiracy is far more sinister.

The internet brought opinion broadcasting to the masses -- there are bloggers and Serious Web Journalists Who Are Definitely Not Bloggers (SWJWADNB's) and message board legends and tweeters. In this, the worst decade in the history of modern American sports, they've all been priced out of the big arenas and stadiums. Most lack the education (or dumb luck) to get seats on press row. So without tickets, credentials or access, the new independent sports web is dependent on the filter provided by the Sports-Industrial Complex.

Some fall into a deep trap of temptation. They'll blog about all the stupid clichés on the highlight show, or tweet about some sports celebrity scandal. They might go on Facebook and post a status update about a former jock analyst and his huge ego, or start a message board discussion about how the studio hosts are killing everybody's brain cells. Some guy might even start openly speculating that he could do a much better job from his couch.

And that's when the trap snaps shut. That unfortunate sports fan has been manipulated into being a distraction from a distraction. By fighting what he most detests, he's become part of the problem. He's not discussing sports anymore, he's debating the quality of a delivery mechanism. It's talking sportz.

"Sports media criticism" is sportz about sportz. It's as boring as anything else that's two steps removed from a subject -- it's analysis of analysis. It's a hall of mirrors. It makes as much sense as reviews of Amazon reviewers, or music criticism criticism, and only invites sports media criticism criticism criticism.

Sportz is contagious, and doubles like mitosis as it spreads its stupidity. There is nothing smart that you can say about anything stupid -- especially something that's designed to be stupid. Ignorance and anti-intelligence spread like disease, infesting every context in which they are allowed to exist. That's as real a reality as the indisputable maxim that says big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.

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The Sports-Industrial Complex has no reason whatsoever to make you smarter about sports. There are no best interests to provide you good gambling advice (in fact, the opposite is more profitable). The S.I.C. is not in the teaching business, because it hates competition. It must perpetuate itself, and protect against dilution of power and dissipation of resources. It must maintain its relative exclusivity and separate standing; it has no room for you and your blog.

It has every motivation to make you stupid, and keep you stupid.

Around 20 years ago, the hive-mind of the Sports-Industrial Complex realized that the games weren't enough to keep fans interested, and that 82- and 162-game regular seasons are well beyond the average attention span. Sports for sports' sake don't drive traffic or peel eyeballs. Pure competition is only of interest to purists, and sports needed to go mainstream to capture more of the 18-34 male demographic.

So soap operas for men were born. Athletes became celebrities in a new world of "sports entertainment." There's now an assembly line of controversial, polarizing, generic figures (usually African-American football players who pretend to be Ali in 1970). The athletes get the attention they want, and the S.I.C. gets viewers and hits and ad revenue. It's all sold to you as sports programming, but that doesn't mean it's not sportz.

The Sports-Industrial Complex will be as stupid and obnoxious as its audience will let it be; it will bring as much tits, tail and T.O. as it can. It'll attract catty snark about how ridiculous it is, the kind once only found in nail salons and ensemble comedies about menopause. It will lull people into a false sense of superiority. Hardly anyone stops to consider that complaining about something draws attention to it. They're living in a sportz world, where they're considered consumers instead of fans.

The true and singular genius of sportz broadcasting is its wide impact zone. The S.I.C. gets all the sports-guys who buy lite beer for its "drinkability" and think the secret to a MegaDong™ can be found in an herbal pill. It convinces red-blooded dudes to buy body wash -- can you imagine that? At the same time, real actual educated people are being tricked out of enjoying sports every day with sportz. They're suckered into the cheap entertainment and fake controversy, and it's sad to see.

Every moment spent bitching about sportz is time not spent contemplating the excitement of experiencing actual human competition. It's time that can be used defining one's own relationship to spectator sports. Those are minutes and hours that could be spent creating real sports commentary of one's own.

Despite all the new broadcasting opportunities the internet gives us, being an alternative voice becomes more difficult as the years go by. This far into the sportz age, it's nearly impossible to keep from using the same language, techniques and methods that the Sports-Industrial Complex uses.

A whole generation has grown up with this kind of content, consuming its sports from Fox, ESPN, Turner, NBC and CBS. So a new breed of sports journalists has learned about eliciting reaction, instead of the art of drawing interest with information and perspective. Most of what you get nowadays are judgments on perceived quality, televised performances measured against other televised performances, lists and "takes."

Some in sportswriting's old guard have caught on to this new reaction-based reality. Some have given up on old-fashioned storytelling altogether, and push buttons in order to remain employed and relevant as new-school sportzwriters. I know some of these folks personally, and I've found them to be pleasant and upstanding people. They've just learned how to separate work and real life, to create print personas that are entirely different from their actual ones. I still pray for their sportz-loving souls, though. Sometimes I wonder if I could do that, if I could build a professional alter ego too. By that I mean a modern one.

The need to expand the audience beyond actual sports fans has blurred the lines between the games and popular culture. Is there really anything in sports history or future that has anything to do with Eric Stoltz having to choose between Mary Stuart Masterson and Lea Thompson? I've never experienced any sports moment that Beverly Hills 90210 or The Office or Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In is a metaphor for. Seriously, have you? Reference comedy is nothing new (Bugs Bunny cartoons are full of celebrity gags that only old or dead people get), but reaching beyond the perimeter of the sports world for a cheap generational connection is pure sportz. Sportz manipulates our desperate desire for a shared consumer experience.

Sportz journalism is easy and effective. It's cheap to create, doesn't require a lot of thought to produce, and it's often free to publish. But for bloggers and SWJWADNB's, a lack of access, favor and discretion doesn't have to mean another online Us magazine for boys. New technology and new media are creating opportunities to tell new kinds of stories and parse tremendous amounts of data, and there's a lot of great independent work being done.

Sports knowledge is being distributed in ways that simply weren't possible 25 years ago. Many of the creative forces behind these efforts are our friends and inspirations, and very few are making a lot of money at this (the idea of getting rich off sports without owning a team is only about 40 years old). To list these legends is unnecessary; you can tell them apart by their basic approach. They strive to inspire and engage their readers, instead of instigating, insulting and ingratiating them.

We like to pretend that we've always chosen wisely, but we've certainly fallen short of those ideals on occasion. We've had our regrettable episodes. Over the years, I've learned a good rule of thumb about recognizing sportz in one's own work: you're part of the layer of static between the action and the audience when you're attracting that same static. If most of your audience feedback arrives in complete sentences and paragraphs, you're doing a good job.

Stupid is stupid. Stupid is a magnet that attracts everyone in the neighborhood, a stupid lodestone that draws people from far and wide. Dumb is a black hole that's always lurking just around the corner, waiting for you to fall into the dumb vortex. Brainlessness never announces itself, and wears a thousand brainless disguises.

Sportz is everywhere. There's so much of it that it's contributed to the inflation of all the numbers and values in the sports industry, and as a result we now have a Sports Bubble. It's up to each of us to stand up to the TV or the sports blog. We need to point the finger of shame and yell out, "That's not sports." We need to stick together, stand and fight, and somehow rise above what we've been sold.