Sports are not real life, folks

Associated Press

This has nothing to do directly with baseball but (a) the subject of it is a Spink Award winner, baseball writing’s highest honor; and (b) the broader lesson applies to baseball just as it applies to any sport. So let’s talk about this dumb thing Dan Shaughnessy said.

He was on a radio show talking about the NBA Finals. He wants the Cavs to win for a couple of reasons. Primarily because he doesn’t like Golden State’s style of play — the outside shooting, mostly — and he doesn’t “want to see that rewarded.” Another reason he wants the Cavs to win:

. . .you got the 52-year thing with Cleveland, and I’m all for the Rust Belt cities that are downtrodden and need a reason to go on.

The thing about “downtrodden Rust Belt cities” is about as condescending as it gets, especially coming from a rich dude from a coastal city like Shaughnessy who, for whatever his roots were and whatever his family’s history is, has approximately zero insight into what life is like or what is important to people who live in Rust Belt cities in 2016. Will the basketball fans of Cleveland be happy if the Cavs win it? Sure. And citizens of Cleveland who aren’t basketball fans may even feel good about the Cavs winning too, at least momentarily. But a pro sports team single-handedly giving the downtrodden a “reason to go on?” Holy crap, what kind of perspective is that?

Well, it’s the perspective of a sports columnist. One who, in Shaughnessy’s case, has made “filtering an entire city’s identity through sports” his own personal brand. He’s not alone in that, of course. That’s the m.o. of all the old-style mutli-sport columnists from big city newspapers. They’re a dying breed to be sure, but in some ways the breed deserves to die, for many reasons both practical and aesthetic. But one of the big reasons they should be put out to pasture is that they have made it their life’s work to transform sports from a pleasant diversion into The Only Thing That Truly Matters, while simultaneously oversimplifying real life to a comical degree.

Our lack of perspective about sports in society owes a heaping helping of thanks to the boosters of the kinds of fictions Shaughnessy is peddling here. Fictions about how sports can lift up and inspire whole cities serves as cover for billionaire owners to ask for publicly funded stadiums and for needed social and public works to take a back seat to sports boosterism. Meanwhile, sports columnists’ habitual conflation of athletic prowess and personal character contributes to athletes not being held accountable when they commit bad acts. At the same time it gives cover for fans to fail to consider the very humanity of athletes. To think that guys who get hurt are “soft.” To think that those who merely make human mistakes are villains.

Sports columnists make the complicated business of living in the real world seem so easy. Winning = happiness. Losing = sorrow. Heroes will save us. Goats are to blame if we are not saved. Actually understanding cause and effect or how the economy, social dynamics, the business of sports and the business of life all interact and inform the human experience is hard to put into 800 words twice a week, angers the people they depend on for access and importance, is thus not in their bailiwick and is thus not their problem. Sticking to sports is pretty myopic. Sticking so hard to sports that one comes to believe they explain everything is obscene.

Meanwhile, sports columnists make the relatively straightforward business of actual sports complicated. As far as I can tell, the purpose of a team playing a basketball game is to win it. But no, Shaughnessy says you have to win it in a certain way for it to be legitimate (see, also, columns about “winning with class” and whose turn it is or is not to win it, among other sports championship narratives). Sometimes scoring more points than the other guys is good. Sometimes it is bad. The sports columnist will explain to you how and why this is.

I dunno. Maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe I’m wrong to think real life is the complicated place where there are no easy answers and things truly matter and that sports is the simple place where things are more straightforward and the stakes are lower. I mean, Dan Shaughnessy says that’s not the case and I’m told he’s the expert.