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The Complex Life of the Couch Potato

Friday, February 3, 2012

‘If the question is about sports,’ legendary TV sports producer Don Ohlmeyer once said, ‘the answer is money.’ Whatever is a fan to do?

As a couch potato–au gratin, to be sure–who probably watches too much sports on television, I find myself thinking more and more about losers. I think about those athletes upon whose bulky shoulders the loss of a game or match can be squarely laid: the guy who hooks the easy field goal; the kid who misses the two free throws that might have sent his team into overtime and given it a chance to make the playoffs; the closing relief pitcher who blows the save; the golfer who overhits the gimme putt that costs him a couple of hundred grand. Sports may well be a good deal less about the thrill of victory than it is about the sadness of defeat.

In this past season’s National Football League conference finals, both games were decided by a clear and not easily forgiven error by a player on the losing teams. The Baltimore Ravens’ Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime and given his team a chance to play in the Super Bowl. During overtime in the other game, the San Francisco 49ers’ Kyle Williams fumbled a punt that allowed the New York Giants to score a game-winning field goal. Both players let down their teams, their fans, and the cities for which they play.

I believe I have found the formula for not letting their defeat get me down or their victories over-excite me.

Think of these two athletes in their respective locker-rooms after the game. Inconsolable had to have been their condition. How many of their dreams will be blotted with mental replays of their costly mistakes? A small number of athletes have been remembered almost exclusively for errors: a University of California linebacker named Roy Reigel who recovered a fumble in the 1929 Rose Bowl game against Georgia Tech and ran the wrong way with it; Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitcher who served up a gopher ball to the Giants’ Bobby Thomson (“the shot heard round the world”) that denied the Dodgers a trip to the World Series; the Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner who let a slow grounder hit by the Mets’ Mookie Wilson dribble through his legs, costing his team the World Series; a first-baseman for the Chicago Cubs named Leon Durham who made the same error in the 1984 playoff series against the San Diego Podres. The morning after the game, my local grocer asked me if I had heard about Durham’s attempted suicide. “No,” I replied, much concerned. “He stepped out in front of a bus,” he said, “but it went through his legs.”

Some might argue that, in the cases of the two football players who cost their teams vital games in the NFL playoffs, they are professionals, paid serious money to do what is expected of them, and when they don’t, they must accept contumely—lots of it—as a result. More than mere contumely sometimes comes their way. Kyle Williams has received death threats from San Francisco fans for his mistake. His father Kenny, who is the general manager of the Chicago White Sox, commented upon this: “That's the nature of the beast ... The only way to change it is to go into another occupation if you can’t deal with it.”

As for the beast, it is of course the hyper excitement that arouses sports fans and makes them, at their not infrequent worst, little different than the crowds in Rome who voted death for defeated gladiators. The word “fan,” recall, comes from “fanatic,”and a fanatic is never a calm man.

To be fanatic about a contemporary team, all of whose players are ready to depart whenever more money is offered them, is on the face of it absurd. Not that the absurdity gets in the way of fans going into depression when their teams of (essentially) hired hands fail to come through, or are otherwise bested by teams of more talented hired hands. I have experienced this depression myself when my teams have lost, just as I have felt a lift of exultation when they have won. I continue to root for my hometown teams, but I believe I have found the formula for not letting their defeat get me down or their victories over-excite me.

A journalist once approached the television sports producer Don Ohlmeyer, saying that he had a question for him. “If the question is about sports,” Ohlmeyer said, “the answer is money.” As a sports fan, one does well to keep this in mind. Sports are more and more about money; even the amateur sports of college football and basketball, so long as the coaches of the top teams earn annual salaries in the millions and a so-called “successful program” brings in vast sums, are finally themselves about money.

The word ‘fan,’ recall, comes from ‘fanatic,’ and a fanatic is never a calm man.

Money has changed the nature of all sports, in ways too numerous to set out here. From the vantage of one’s couch, though, it is good to keep in mind the decisive role that money plays in assembling teams and hiring coaches, in players’ loyalties, in the way games are televised, and so much else. Doing so may not uplift the heart, but it works wonderfully to calm the mind. However extraordinary the athletes, however dramatic the game, however keen traditional rivalries, in the end one hits the thick green wall of money.

One can keep this in mind without pickling in cynicism and still look forward to enjoying sports. One would be naïve if one blocked it out. “I’m a cynical idealist,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, and so ought every sophisticated sports fan to be. Fitzgerald also wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” In sports, one idea is that they are intrinsically marvelous, the other is that they are extrinsically just another way of turning a big buck. Complex stuff, but, then, whoever said that a couch potato’s life was easy?

Joseph Epstein is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit. This essay is the first of a regular feature he will write about the sporting life for American.com.

FURTHER READING: Peter Coclanis asks “Are There Hidden Virtues to Bowling Alone?” Nick Schulz reveals “How the Progressives Almost Killed Football.” Lee Harris examines “Tim Tebow and the Atheist’s Dilemma.” Chad Hill contributes “It’s March Math-ness!” Christina Hoff Sommers says “Take Back the Sports Page?.” David Archer discusses “Sports and the Market.” Richard Vedder and Matthew Denhart write “The Real March Madness.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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