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A Couch Potato at a Time of Transition

Friday, November 9, 2012

We’re living in an age of transition, and no one feels the sense of transition more strongly than a couch potato as one sports season slides into another.

The couch potato resembles no one so much as the shtetl idiot who was instructed to wait at the village gate for the arrival of the Messiah. The pay was poor, he was told, but the work steady. So with the couch potato and sports: the pay is poor but the work steady — and, with cable television, getting steadier all the time.

This perhaps not entirely neat analogy between the couch potato and the shtetl idiot occurs to me just now, with the long baseball season over and the equally long basketball season, college and professional, just beginning. Football, meanwhile, is mid-season. Tennis is available to the couch potato year-round, at least if he subscribes, as I do, to the Tennis Channel. An embarras de richesses, a pretentious sports fan might say, except that a couch potato doesn’t easily embarrass.

Professional hockey has been under a lockout, but this doesn’t affect me. I admire the skill and especially the toughness of hockey players — I recall a Chicago Blackhawks player getting 33 stitches in his face during the first period of a game and coming back onto the ice for the third period — but I have never been a regular fan of the sport. This is owing in part to my not having played it as a kid, and perhaps also in part to its requiring full-time attention in the way that other sports don’t.

In 2010, when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, I got on board, like the good fair-weather fan I tend to be, during the playoffs. The tension was nearly more than I could take. I found myself off my couch and on my feet as close games wound down to their conclusion. The action was too continuous; the time-outs and other lacunae, apart from the lengthy breaks between periods, too few.

I generally watch sports on television with a magazine or lightish book on my lap. Because of this I don’t in the least mind tedious replays or time-outs or even commercials, for during such breaks in the action I take up my book or magazine. E. B. White once defended the elaborate and plush ads in The New Yorker by arguing that they and the magazine’s articles, stories, and reviews were in a natural competition for the reader’s attention. If a magazine’s copy fails to entice, one’s eyes go to the ads, but if it does entice, one scarcely notices the ads. And so for this couch potato the two — sports and print — are in competition, and not infrequently, print wins. The result is that instead of watching a game with a book or magazine on my lap, I find myself reading while a game plays in the background.

I was going to write “drones on in the background,” but I watch most sports on television with the sound turned off. I feel I know most of what the announcers have to tell me; and even if I don’t, any new knowledge they have to convey isn’t worth putting up with the clichés and the empty schmooze that constitutes the preponderance of talk coming from television sports announcers.

Your basic couch potato is also a fantast; he is, you might say, in a perpetual fantasy league of his own imagining.

As a Chicagoan, I grew up with a rich tradition of bad sportscasters. For years, I suffered under a Cubs announcer named Jack Brickhouse, who in place of an absence of knowledge about baseball provided a general aura of bonhomie and platitude. Cubs, in Brickhouse’s broadcasts, often got “good wood,” a euphemism for long outs, of which the team supplied all too many. Players who had been traded, in his view, “would like nothing better than to wreak vengeance on their old teams.” When Cubs hit home runs, he would cry “Hey Hey!” But Brickhouse steered clear of all the rich subtleties of baseball, which were apparently unavailable to him, supplying in their place a Rotarian spirit of empty optimism over long years of defeat.

Brickhouse was replaced as the Chicago Cubs announcer by Harry Caray. Caray came to the job with the reputation of a serious boozer and a man who was supposed to have lost his job as the St. Louis Cardinals announcer because of what in the old days was known as hanky-panky with the team’s owner’s wife. Caray’s performance was notable for his mispronunciation of the names of Hispanic players, his faulty eyesight, and his irritable disposition.

George Will, who grew up midway between St. Louis and Chicago in Champaign, Illinois, and whose father taught philosophy at the University of Illinois, told me that as a boy he might have been a Cardinals fan but for Caray’s announcing, which combined depression with inaccuracy. Will had no choice but to become a Cubs fan, which for him entailed years of suffering, not yet ended.

We’re living in an age of transition, as Adam said to Eve as they departed the Garden of Eden, and no one feels the sense of transition more strongly than a couch potato as one sports season slides into another. I have tried to get into basketball, having already watched two Chicago Bulls games, but haven’t been able to concentrate sufficiently on them. During both games, in the battle between print and sports, a lengthy and gossip-filled biography of the writer Bruce Chatwin defeated the Bulls for my attention.

Although I played basketball with great ardor as a boy — as a player I never made it past the frosh-soph team in high school — I am beginning to find my passion for the game slackening. The players are becoming too large for me to fantasize any longer that I might be among them. For your basic couch potato is also a fantast; he is, you might say, in a perpetual fantasy league of his own imagining. Still, I feel a continuing if somewhat draining loyalty to a game I have watched nearly my life long.

I recall a Chicago Blackhawks player getting 33 stitches in his face during the first period of a game and coming back onto the ice for the third period.

I go back in the history of basketball not quite to Dr. Naismith’s peach baskets but to the set shot, the one-hander, the underhand free throw; and I have followed it up through the jump shot, the 24-second rule (the 35-second rule in college), the three-point play, and the odious slam dunk. I call the slam dunk odious because it provides a false drama and an element of showing off untrue to the sporting spirit. Anyone sufficiently tall with large enough hands can dunk a basketball. But not everyone can make the brilliant assist or the crucial long shot, or defend with the relentlessness of a gila monster (those lizards that, as the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre teaches, never let go).

I use golf on television as a soporific, usually latish on Sunday afternoons, when the longing for a nap is upon me. Nowhere has television been more inventive than in its coverage of golf, so that the camera always seems to be on some crucial shot or other. Still, the game’s ultimate and profound dullness — with its object of getting a small ball into a hole surrounded by grass — wins out, and divine unconsciousness soon arrives.

Among the few sound decisions I’ve made in my life, the one I feel most confident about is my decision not to take up golf as have many of the boys (now older men) with whom I grew up. I once wrote a piece for Newsweek about the Bernie Madoff scandal, in which I noted that the one slender thread of silver lining to the dark cloud of the scandal was that it would get a few Jews in off the golf course. I received many letters of protest for that comment, including one from an old acquaintance, long a multimillionaire, who informed me that he belonged to no fewer than 14 golf clubs, poor baby.

The one sport on television you won’t catch me watching is NASCAR. Jews interested in NASCAR are rarer than Jews in the front four of professional football teams. Not even a confirmed and butt-hardened couch potato such as I would consider watching hillbillies in gaudy coveralls risk their lives racing around artificially steeped tracks. Watch NASCAR? Good Lord, no, never! I’d as soon listen to Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos analyze politics.

Joseph Epstein is THE AMERICAN’s couch potato and the author of the new book Essays in Biography.

FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes “Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question,” “The Long, Hot Summer,” “Anyone for Tennis?,” and “The Complex Life of the Couch Potato.” Nick Schulz explains “How the Progressives Almost Killed Football.” Daniel Hanson discusses “A Strike to End NFL's Official Nonsense.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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