SPORTS HERESY FOR THE AGES 

SPORTS HERESY FOR THE AGES

“The greater the pain, the greater the gain.” -- Early Christian writer Ignatius of Antioch So Nike, Gatorade, the NFL, and ESPN didn’t invent all the fitness and sports mottos after all. Did the ancients, perhaps, also feel the burn? Go the extra mile to Carthage or Pompeii? Raise their games to the next level? Get buff? Eat right for health? Go on crash diets? Did Ignatius of Antioch have rippled abs and buns of steel? Beats me. I got that quote (actually pleion kopos, polu kerdos) out of a book by a serious scholar, Garry Wills. What I do know is that our current obsession with physical fitness and professional sports is, well, ridiculous. Fact: Convicts now have spinning machines. It’s a fitness contraption, not a way to make a garment. Fact: Kids can now buy a really cool candy bar laced with muscle-building creatine. Fact: Personal trainers in Memphis make as much as $100 an hour. Fact: The NBA wants Memphis to spend $250 million for a new arena. What America needs at times like this is another H.L. Mencken, the great cynic and newspaperman who was famously pear-shaped, enormously fond of beer and cigars, and proud of it. In his book Heathen Days, Mencken wrote about his youthful experiences at the Baltimore Y.M.C.A.: “All that the Y.M.C.A.’s horse and rings really accomplished was to fill me with an ineradicable distaste, not only for Christian endeavor in all its forms, but also for every variety of calisthenics, so that I still be-grudge the trifling exertion needed to climb in and out of a bathtub, and hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense. If I had my way no man guilty of golf would be eligible to any office of trust or profit under the United States, and all female athletes would be shipped to the white-slave corrals of the Argentine.” Of course we now have a president, George W. Bush, who once owned the professional baseball team that paid $252 million for a single player this year and whose great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was one of the founding fathers of golf and namesake of the Walker Cup. Mencken would love it. Mencken’s greatest decade as a critic and newspaperman, the Roaring Twenties, was also the first Golden Age of Sport, the decade of Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, and Babe Ruth. The most popular spectator sport of that era was baseball. No sport has come farther from its humble past as an innocent children’s game and the pastime of the American masses than baseball. In his book about leadership, Certain Trumpets, Wills retells the story of Carl Stotz, the founder of Little League baseball. In a strange way, Stotz was Mencken’s antinomian counterpart even though Stotz loved sport and was anything but an intellectual. In old photographs, Stotz looks the quintessential Everyman of what Tom Brokaw has called The Greatest Generation -- wiry, dark-eyed, wearing a plain white T-shirt tucked into what appear to be wrinkled pin-striped dress pants, with dark socks and leather street shoes. He is never wearing a baseball uniform. The game, he firmly believed, was for kids, not grown-ups, and he resisted all attempts to make it anything more than that. It was a game, for crying out loud, and the important thing was that every kid should play. Grown-ups would get their reward by being spectators or volunteer coaches, and the whole community would be better for it. When Stotz founded Little League in Pennsylvania in 1938, America was still coming out of the Depression, and 56 companies turned him down when he asked them to put up $30 to sponsor a team. After Little League got going, Stotz was insistent that every boy get a chance to play in the field and that teams be more or less equal in ability. He even set up a point system to keep teams from recruiting too many stars, a forerunner to the salary cap now commonplace in major-league sports. Stotz agreed to be the first Little League commissioner, but he was always uneasy with commercialization and anything that threatened Little League’s pristine foundation and grassroots organization. He re-signed in protest over commercial and competitive pressures in 1955, in the middle of baseball’s golden decade, when the immortal centerfield triumvirate of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider were in their prime. That same year he declined to go on the hit TV show This Is Your Life because it featured cigarette commercials. Half a century later, Little League lives on, while its founder is largely forgotten. As Wills says, the commercialization of Little League, which now has its own televised World Series, was probably inevitable. “If kids imitate the major leagues, they come to resemble the major leagues, in bad ways as well as good,” he writes. When Stotz died in 1992 (he was 82), America had certainly shown him a thing or two about the error of his ways. Cities like Memphis learned that responsibility and leadership in athletics are properly vested not in the common herd but in something called a Sports Authority, an appointed agency whose very name connotes its wisdom and majesty. Its key members come mainly from the aristocracy and meet with moguls and obedient politicians over lunch at the country club. The focus of their dealings is never anything so trivial as children and participatory sports; it is professional teams and athletes like the NBA’s Jason Williams, famous for reminding kids that a good jump shot beats a good book any day. The driving principle in sport today, used to justify anything from $100 million contracts to $250 million arenas to $10 autographs (a bargain, to be sure) is “that’s what the market will bear.” Only a cynic like Mencken would point out that “the market” today is heavily infused with public subsidies and money-losing franchises. The market, it appears, won’t bear so much after all. The NBA all-star game in February? All-time television ratings low, down 17 percent from 2000, the previous all-time low. Baseball’s All-Star game and World Series? The lowest ratings ever. The Wall Street Journal has reported a collapse in ticket prices to pro sports events that is “enough to send a chill down the spine of the sports industry.” A newsletter called The Elliott Wave Theorist has been heralding a crash in pro sports for years, and notes that government is “the ultimate crowd, always acting on the last trend, the one that is already over” in pursuit of major-league status “that is on the cusp of its biggest devaluation in history.” In the midst of wretched excess, it is pleasant to remember men such as Mencken and Stotz from time to time. Their crackpot notions about fitness and sports are as nostalgic as reruns of Andy Griffith, a glimpse of a two-toned Edsel, or a visit to the Pink Palace Museum. Mencken died in 1956, eight years after suffering a stroke, a naysayer to the end. The consequence of all those beery nights at the Hofbrau Haus and those dreadful cigars, no doubt. Stotz, the mope, was sitting on a gold mine of commercial possibilities and he walked away! As for St. Ignatius of Antioch, The Catholic Encyclopedia says he was “an athlete for Christ,” fearless and steadfast, and a wordsmith ahead of his time to boot. He was martyred around 100 A.D., taken to Rome in chains, “there to become the food of wild beasts and a spectacle for the people.” Athlete indeed. [This story was originally published in the June issue of Memphis magazine.]

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