A writer in the weekend newspapers has made a suggestion in a subject close to my heart, that leaves me between two stools: whether to accept and embrace his suggestion, or to denounce it, root and branch.
The subject is sports, a subject I have taken a devoted interest in ever since I was a small boy. Indeed my enthusiasm for sports is regarded by my family and my diminishing circle of friends as so eccentric as to allow them to question my very sanity.
I understand their outrage. After all, according to all my political beliefs, I should abhor sport as nothing but the opiate of the masses, a distraction designed by those who govern us to divert the voters from paying serious attention to the iniquities of their governance. I really can’t argue against that: it is true. And yet, I have always loved sport. My bedroom wall was covered with photos of every All Black Rugby team since 1905; as a kid I spent my every waking hour hitting a ball --- almost any kind of ball --- back and forth against the wall, or playing pretend games of golf in the backyard, in which narrow victories were always won by R.H. Glading, our national champion, beating off Bobby Locke, Ben Hogan and other legendary figures of the game; in my first year as a journalist I wrote mostly about sports; by the time I was 19 I knew more about the history of cricket and Rugby than about any other subject. I could recite the winner of Wimbledon for decades back; had read every book written on the sainted game --- cricket, of course --- and spent much time wondering whether the 232 made by Stan McCabe for Australia at Trent Bridge, Nottingham in 1938, reputed to be the greatest innings of the modern era, could really have been superior to the many graceful innings of Victor Trumper 30 years before, innings so fine that the great W.G. Grace presented him with his bat, as “the old champion to the new champion”, surely the ultimate accolade in all of cricket history.
Here is how Neville Cardus, at the same time both the music critic and cricket reporter for the Manchester Guardian, described McCabe’s innings:
“Now came death and glory, brilliance wearing the dress of culture. McCabe demolished the English attack with aristocratic politeness, good taste and reserve. He cut and drove, upright and lissome; his perfection of touch moved the aesthetic sense; this was the cricket of felicity, power and no covetousness, strength and no brutality, assault and no battery, dazzling strokes and no rhetoric; lovely brave batsmanship, giving joy to the connoisseur…One of the greatest innings ever seen anywhere in any period…he is in the line of Trumper and no other batsman today but McCabe has inherited Trumper’s sword and cloak.”
I even gloried in the overblown prose, challenging any other sport to match it. Cardus, after all, was just one of many intellectual Englishmen who have graced the great game with their poetry.
So, okay, that’s just to tell you my take on sports as introduction to what Cathal Kelly, a sportswriter for the Globe and Mail suggested on Saturday. “…mainstream sports,” he wrote, “…may still be all things to all people, but they can no longer be the same thing to everyone. The binding power of sport is fracturing. Without the ability to bring people together, the games we play begin to seem what they are --- a distraction from actual problems…. this is the crest of the hill, when a thing is running on inertia rather than its own power. We’ve reached peak sports.”
He introduces the subject by way of Trump and his attack on football players who kneel for the national anthem, but he goes on with a more interesting analysis. The huge sums of money that have come to dominate the big leagues in all major sports come from TV deals. The owners, on to a good thing, have pressed for more and more of it. “Twenty years ago, the NFL was a one-day-a-week thing….Now it is an every day thing.” .And if there are no games there are still plenty of channels “force-feeding you with a lot of screaming about the football you’ve already watched.” Nevertheless, viewership is on a slide that shows no sign of diminishing, and in his search for reasons, he comes upon saturation. “Football has become the equivalent of living in a pizza parlour. Pizza is great…but some nights you are going to want to go out for some Indian, or pick up some leafy greens instead.” And having overcome their over-indulgence, these people are not likely to return to it.
He further suggests we are in a new age, in which people don’t want to wait for what they want to see: they like to have it right there when they are ready to watch it. This is a demand that sports cannot meet. But people may continue to watch in a way that does not boost league revenues, like watching clips on Instagram, or arguing about the big catch on Redditt.
In other words we are suffering from a surfeit of sports, and we have reached our peak, from which only a decline can be predicted, writes Mr. Kelly. Taking the NHL as an example, he says they have stretched their playoff games to two months from six weeks thirty years ago, and, “ if the NHL could figure out a way to sell it, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final would be played 24 hours before the start of the next season.”
In the old days when I was a kid following Wimbledon, we followed the top players as they battled each other in a few big tournaments a year. They did not go round playing against the same players over and over all year. In the days of Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Herb Elliott, Roger Bannister, Mel Whitfield, and Peter Snell, the Olympics were won by athletes with ordinary day jobs. It was even said of the incomparable Don Bradman, the greatest scoring machine in the history of cricket, that before embarking on one of his freak innings at 11 am, he would go to his office and put in an hour or two of ordinary work that needed to be done.
This was the spirit of the Rugby I adored as a youngster: the heroes were guys who lived in the neighbouring streets and hung out with my brothers between games for the All Blacks. Though there has always been a professional element in English cricket, I can still remember when the first professional cricketer was hired in New
Zealand in what must have been the late 1940s.
One after the other, the amateur games turned professional, especially those that slowly had became false-amateurs living on exaggerated expenses. I was present at the first open Wimbledon, in 1968. I remember Rod Laver playing Ken Rosewall: Rosewall was playing wonderfully but Laver was thrashing him. At that tournament I will never forget the great Pancho Gonzales, 40 years of age and at the end of a career that had always been professional, winning the doubles title with something unheard of in those days: four aces in the final game.
Yet even though sports is no longer played under the rubric that I learned at high school, “the game before the prize”, I still to his day am fascinated by the struggle to win, the poetry and glory of the stylishness and technical mastery, whether of running --- think of Almaz Ayana’s beautiful 10,000 metre world record at the last Olympics --- or the grace of movement, Roger Federer’s glorious one-handed backhand sweeping everything before it. And allow me to think of the All Blacks winning the last World Cup, as The Guardian commented, “play(ing) at a level few teams in the history of the game have reached.” And after it was all over, their coach Steve Hansen who had insisted all along that they wanted to play the game as it should be played, in its full artistry and power, saying how pleased he was by the kind of game they had played. He went on to say that, after all, even if they had lost, “it was still only a game.”
That made me proud to have been their supporter all along, unhappy when they lost, but always ready to reflect that, after all, “it’s only a game.”
That spirit is what has been almost lost with the advent of big money into sports. And finally I have to conclude it is probably good if that influence of money, especially of big money, is to be diminished in future.