This week’s Sports Illustrated was the 50th Anniversary Issue. It contained a great article as well as the best of their “Signs of the Apocalypse” series. Here are some of my favorite SIgns, and then the article liberally quoted below because you need to be a subscriber to get it.
APRIL 4, 1994 – In response to scuffles between opposing players at several recent high school basketball games, the Marmonte League in Southern California has outlawed postgame handshakes.
JUNE 6, 1994 – After a 40-year-old woman marathoner was killed by a mountain lion in the Sierra Nevada foothills in April and the lion was later shot by wildlife authorities, a fund for the cat’s cub had raised, as of last week, $21,000 … while a fund for the woman’s two children had raised only $9,000.
JANUARY 23, 1995 – A man in Troy, N.Y., has received a U.S. patent for a table- or wall-mounted mechanical arm designed to give a sports fan watching a game alone on television a high five after an exciting play.
JANUARY 22, 1996 – Thirty-five Kansas City football fans last week signed up for Chiefs Grief, a therapy session designed to help people get over the team’s Jan. 7 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
DECEMBER 16, 1996 – Chicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoc’s entrance into last Saturday’s Bulls-Miami Heat game was interrupted when his pager fell from the pocket of his warmup jacket.
OCTOBER 20, 1997 – Mississippi State noseguard Eric Dotson missed Saturday’s game because of injuries he sustained in a fight with a teammate over who was first in line to have his ankles taped.
NOVEMBER 3, 1997 – According to a Boating magazine survey, a married boat owner is more likely to carry a wallet photograph of his boat than of his spouse or children.
AUGUST 3, 1998 – Houghton Mifflin’s recently released American history textbook for fifth-graders, Build Our Nation, covers the Depression and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt in 33 lines, while devoting two pages to Cal Ripken Jr.
NOVEMBER 30, 1998 – Before last Saturday’s Cal-Stanford game the mascots for both teams — Oski the Bear and the Stanford Tree — were required to take Breathalyzer tests.
FEBRUARY 1, 1999 – Two birds were expelled from last week’s Swedish national pigeon-racing championships after they tested positive for cortisone, a banned substance.
MARCH 8, 1999 – Angered by a call during a soccer game in South Africa, a player pulled a knife and charged the referee, who got a gun from the sidelines and shot the player dead.
MARCH 22, 1999 – The babycenter.com website offers a Sports Conflict Catcher to help prospective parents plan pregnancies so childbirth won’t conflict with major sports events.
JUNE 21, 1999 – James (Pate) Philip, president of the Illinois state senate, said he voted against a bill to protect referees and umpires from assaults because “maybe they deserve a pop once in a while.”
DECEMBER 13, 1999 – The $24.95 Stadium Pal — essentially a condom attached to a plastic bag worn under the pants — lets male football fans urinate without leaving their seats.
DECEMBER 27, 1999 – The Vail, Colo., ski resort has installed computer kiosks along its runs so skiers can check stock quotes and make trades.
APRIL 24, 2000 – A Tamaqua, Pa., police officer lost his job after a jury found him guilty of giving a 10-year-old Little League pitcher $2 to bean a 10-year-old batter.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2000 – After birders complained to CBS that they’d heard geographically inappropriate species chirping in the background of some of its golf telecasts, the network admitted that it sometimes played taped birdsongs for “ambient sound.”
Now, the terrific article…
“Organized sports are the perfection of the unnecessary. The goal of which is to do something that doesn’t need doing better than someone else can do it. We’re faster now, stronger, and can throw and whack things farther than at any time in our history. It’s one of the rare areas of human endeavor that have shown any measurable improvement through the years.
The number of world-class athletes among us — those for whom the whacking and the throwing and the roaring glory of having done so become a life — is the tiniest fraction of a fraction of the world’s population. But how vital they’ve become to the rest of us, how much they mean. And how much we ask of them.
How must it feel to be Michael or Tiger or Lance, Navratilova or Schumacher, DiMaggio or Zatopek, Keino or Mays or Zaharias? How must it feel to be, to have been, Muhammad Ali? Pick a name chiseled in any wing of the sports pantheon — exalted, dominant, so briefly unbeatable — and consider the privilege and the burden of being the best of the best of us. What must it be like to shoulder the weight of the world’s dreams, to suffer humanity’s fevered enthusiasms, to cause and then bear forward our disappointments?
For the rest us, there’s some long-gone instant of childhood glory, then the realization that we’re too slow or too small or too ordinary. Then comes the lifetime spent harmlessly jogging or coaching the T-ballers; buying our season tickets, running through the morning sports section and doggedly whacking the remote. Because to watch, to simply see it, is a kind of necessary and loving witness to whatever human excellence is….
Do we ask too much of sports? Or do they ask too much of us? We ask that sports not only reveal our character but create it. We ask that athletes not just entertain us but transform us. That they make us somehow better. And not just here in Fortress America, either, as is often asserted by the critics, but on every continent. The cults of Schumacher or Beckham or Woods respect no borders, and fanaticism of every kind makes its home everywhere. Man United? If only.
Even those few of us indifferent to sports are surrounded by them, by the stunning ad campaigns and by the criminal trials, by the cult of celebrity and by our worship of the zero-sum result. We are a competitive species, sure, but sports have infected our accounting of nearly everything. Why else the presidential horse race, the weekly box score of box office “winners” and “losers”?
We swim in the language of sports, in the business-school rhetoric of up-by-the-jockstrap metaphor, in the wrongheaded militarism of the halftime pep talk; the “slam-dunk” masquerading as foreign policy, the game-as-war self-importance and the war-as-game reductionism.
It is a commonplace among the eggheads that athletes are a society’s surrogates, the gladiators for our pitiless alter egos. I’m not so sure I buy that these days, or the notion that sports, contact sports especially, offer us any kind of healthy collective release of our cultural aggressions.
Look around at the parents screaming at their tiny Pee-Wee Leaguers and ask yourself this: If we had more football, would we have less war? Sports belong on the news continuum somewhere between the headlines 1,000 NOW DEAD IN IRAQ and DOCTOR FINDS $650 WORTH OF COINS IN PATIENT’S BELLY.
I am old enough now to know that there is no making sense of sports, or society, really. There is only the endless hunt to uncover the small truths about who we think we are.
There’s something a little hopeless in that, at least for those of us who work at SI, because to write the profile of an athlete is an exercise in futility, an attempt to reverse engineer the ineffable. We circle that gifted person as best we can, trying to get near the center of something, asking on the readers’ behalf, Where do you live? Where were you born? What do you drive? What do you eat? How do you train? What are your dreams?
We ask the ridiculous because we know there can n ever be an adequately sublime reply to the question that brought us to this athlete in the first place, the Maximum Unanswerable: How do you do it?
The awkward, inevitable follow-up to which is a question that has stumped the novelists and the poets and the philosophers since we dropped down out of that tree: What does it feel like to be you?
We don’t play the games just for glory, or even for money, although that’s hard to see these days — we play, as we always have, to remind ourselves that we’re here, that we’re present in the present and part of the larger life of the world.
Insulated from virtually every physical experience but the ones we choose, sheltered and fed by our technologies, we cling to sports more desperately than ever. The packaging and the payouts have changed, the delivery systems are slicker, but the essence of it, the tug and grunt and struggle, remains the same.
Whatever sports were and whatever they become, at the faraway beginning and the impossible end of everything is only the hammer of a beating heart, that pulse drumming and the lungs bellowing, all the deafening, defining racket of life roaring in your ears, that syncopation of blood and wind, legs working and you running, down at last out of the trees, fully alive and feet on the earth, racing for glory or simply for joy, racing for history’s bright and unattainable horizon.”