Thursday, February 2, 2012

Super Bowled (Sports as the Opium of the Masses)

This Sunday is “Super Bowl Sunday,” but do not expect me to tune in.

I have never watched a Super Bowl (or any football game, for that matter) in my life, and I do not plan to start any time soon. I enjoy a great number of things in life—good books, vinyl records, Gibson guitars, and a strong cup of coffee, to name just a handful—but sports of any kind have never been amongst them. Indeed, if I may update Marx’s famous quote, it is no longer religion, but commercial sports entertainment that is today, “the opium of the masses.”

Football, like most forms of low-brow, commercial entertainment, is the nation’s drug of choice. And when football season ends, addicts turn to basketball, baseball, American Idol and Jersey Shore for their next fix. Fans invest their emotional energy into these mindless, baser distractions, becoming intimately wrapped-up in the lives of the players, contestants or characters. They act as though they actually know these people—as if players like Tom Brady or Tim Tebow are their friends. They are like Mildred in Ray Bradbury’s classic, Fahrenheit 451, who spends her days watching wall-sized displays of interactive “reality” TV. Mildred even refers to the characters on these shows as her “family.”

As psychology professor David Barash writes in an editorial for The Chronicle of Higher Education (“The Roar of the Crowd,” 3/20/2009) the problem with “root, root, rotting,” for the “home team” is “such things are normally done by pigs in the mud, or seedlings lacking a firm grip on reality—fine for them, but I am not at all sure this is something that human beings should do.”

In recounting Americans’ collective lamentation of the 2009 baseball strike which threatened to deprive viewers, pundits and team managers of anything more productive to do with their summer, Barash asks:

Was it really such a disaster? Or is it a disaster that our current paragons have been revealed to be hormonally enhanced and ethically challenged? ...Is life so pale, dull, and unsatisfying that it must be experienced vicariously in order to be savored? You might try reading a book, talking with your family, going for a walk, wrestling with the dog, listening to some music, smelling a flower, making love.

Even more perplexing than the appeal of the inane and utterly insignificant game itself, are the legions of viewers who, like me, have no interest in football itself, but tune in to the “Big Game” purely for the commercials. These viewers, so deeply indoctrinated in consumer society, are the same Americans who line-up in hordes at big-box stores for “Black Friday” bargains the day after Thanksgiving. And this is no coincidence—Super Bowl sponsors pay $3.5 million for 30 seconds of commercial time to get you to drink Coca-Cola, drive a Honda, or sign-up for the investor service, E-Trade.

Last year’s Super Bowl drew approximately 111 million viewers according to the Nielsen ratings company—a new record for the most-watched television program of all time.

Compare that statistic with the current sad state of Americans’ reading habits. A comprehensive study by the National Endowment for the Arts found “startling declines” in “how much and how well” Americans read. According to the 2007 study, 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book that year. Forty-two percent of college graduates never read another book after college, and neither do one-third of high-school graduates. And then there are those who are incapable of reading. Seven million American adults are illiterate, while 30 million can’t read a simple sentence.

Another 27 million possess such poor reading skills they are unable to complete a job application. (Conversely, many “professional” job ads are written by grammatically-challenged H.R. managers with such limited writing abilities, they are often unclear to job-seekers who actually can read well.)

 “Take sports—that’s another example of the indoctrination system in my view,” says Noam Chomsky in the documentary film, Manufacturing Consent. “…It offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about…things in their lives that they actually might do something about.”

Like the characters in Bradbury’s aforementioned dystopia, sports addicts flock restlessly from one televised distraction to the next, uninterested in pressing social, political or environmental concerns. They fail to realize that democracy—unlike football, baseball, or the like—is not a spectator sport.

So, do not ask me what I thought of The Game, on Monday. I intend to stay as far away from the entire affair as possible.


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