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The New York Times’ decision to disband its sports department strikes me as a telling cultural moment that deserves more commentary than it’s likely to receive.  

For one thing, it’s part of a broader cultural trend. Kids are losing interest in team sports, once a mainstay of American childhood. For five straight years, participation in high school sports has declined, and this trend is contributing to teenagers’ crisis of loneliness.

Meanwhile, viewership of live sporting events is in decline, especially among the youth market. Nor is fading interest confined to baseball. We may well have passed peak football and peak basketball. Sports is no longer the national pastime.

The Times describes its decision not as a cutback, but as “an evolution in how we cover sports.”

“We plan to focus even more directly on distinctive, high-impact news and enterprise journalism about how sports intersect with money, power, culture, politics and society at large … At the same time, we will scale back the newsroom’s coverage of games, players, teams and leagues.”

Of course, the Times, taking a cue from the airlines and hotel industries, is following the logic of contemporary consumer capitalism. To grow revenue, the Times is gradually disaggregating the newspaper bundle, which included separate sections on fashion, automobiles, business, real estate, travel and sports. Under the à la carte model, each section will, sooner or later, be broken off, with customers paying for add-ons that were previously included in their subscription.

The economic model involves several principles that define the current American economy: “divide and charge,” “nickel and dime” and “make consumers pay.”

Also, the move allows the Times to recoup an investment decision that has failed to pay off. After the newspaper spent $550 million to acquire the money-losing The Athletic, Times subscribers interested in sports will help pay off that bad investment.

Just read the comments to the Times announcement and it’s clear that many of the paper’s readers shrug their shoulders and say good riddance. Wrote one reader, who sounds just like most faculty members that I know:

“Sports, especially professional sports, is a complete waste of time, especially for adults. Sports are games for children, and an adult should find something else to do with their time, money and energy. Leave sports on the playground for grade school children where they belong. Let alone cover them in a newspaper.”

It wasn’t always that way, and, of course, for millions of Americans today and not just boys and beer-guzzling young men, competitive team sports remains a very meaningful part of their life. As one comment asks rhetorically, don’t their interests deserve “more than a digital nod”?

Even the Times article that covers the announcement pays obeisance to the place that sports occupies in the psyche of a broad segment of the population. “The section covered the major moments and personalities of the last century of American sports, including Muhammad Ali, the birth of free agency, George Steinbrenner, the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, steroids in baseball and the deadly effects of concussions in the National Football League.”

Sports was never simply about winning or losing or trades. It was about human drama: Chris Evert versus Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs, Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird, Mickey Mantle versus Roger Maris.

For generations of boys and young men, competitive team sports was also a testing ground for American manhood. In addition, sports was moral theater, where many of this country’s biggest themes, including racial integration, played out, and “a mirror of the culture.” Sports figures like Tonya Harding and O. J. Simpson loomed large in our collective imagination, providing insights into human character and ethics.

No wonder sports attracted many of the best stylists of the 20th century: David Halberstam, Sally Jenkins, Roger Kahn, Ring Lardner, Michael Lewis, George Plimpton, Grantland Rice and Red Smith. You didn’t have to love sports to love sports writing. These writers didn’t just cover sports; they wrote cultural commentary in the guise of sports coverage.

Some might dismiss an earlier generation of sports writers as myth makers, and that’s certainly correct. In these writers’ hands, athletes, from Jim Thorpe to Babe Didrikson, John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Red Grange, Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne, Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams became this country’s counterparts to the heroes of Greek mythology, possessing their legendary flaws as well as their moral virtues.

But that’s what their readers wanted. Competitive sports served as the moral equivalent of war. The sports clichés—stepping up to the plate, playing through pain, refusing to pull punches, sacrificing for the good of the team—became the lingua franca not just of the business world, but of society as a whole.

We live in a society obsessed with competitive team sports. Our cities are prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds to ensure that we have baseball, basketball, football and hockey. The highest-rated television shows feature sporting events. Thus, it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that competitive team sports are a recent historical invention less than 200 years old.

People played sports before the 1840s. They tossed balls, rode horses, went fishing and wrestled. They watched horse races and cockfights. But they didn’t have modern sports, competitive team sports, played according to clearly defined rules. Nor did they have professional spectator sports with paid athletes. Nor did they keep records.

It was not until the 1830s that the first modern sports were invented. The timing was not accidental. During this period, America became more urban and industrial. Fewer and fewer people lived on farms or worked outdoors. Sports arose during this period not just to fill young men’s leisure time, but for symbolic reasons. Sports offered young men a way to channel aggression and demonstrate their masculinity.

Modern team sports were justified on the grounds that they embodied the manly virtues of self-discipline, responsibility and dedication. The sports team became a substitute for the local militia. Team sports also provided a symbolic embodiment of modern values of teamwork, sacrifice, cooperation and playing by the rules.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sports acquired additional ideological valence. Football was established on selective college campuses to ensure that the country’s elite would not become effete. It was a way for wealthy young men to prove their manliness and prepare for social leadership. And while originally sports were targeted at the native born, immigrants soon discovered that sports offered a shortcut to cultural assimilation.

During the 20th century, sports truly became this country’s field of dreams. Americans regarded the athletic field as the country’s true melting pot, where immigrants could become fully American. Sports also symbolized meritocracy, where athletes achieved success based solely on their skills, drive and guts.

Somehow, Americans blocked out sports’ seamy side. Even in the 19th century, sports was big business. The first baseball teams were organized by streetcar magnates, eager to attract patrons to their new mode of transportation. Today, of course, sports’ unsavory commercial side is inescapable. If a city like Oakland refuses to build a new stadium, then the teams move without an ounce of regret.

In recent years, sports has been stripped of its symbolic meaning. Instead of regarding sports stars as idealized versions of themselves, many Americans increasingly view pro athletes as little more than highly paid gladiators, talented, certainly, but no more meaningful on a cultural level than the nameless, faceless actors and actresses who replaced an earlier generation of cinematic stars, idols and goddesses.

Meanwhile, media has become much more open about publicizing antisocial acts committed by athletes and the physical and psychological damage that concussions and other athletic injuries cause. In short, sports has lost its larger moral and symbolic meaning. It has simply become another form of commercial entertainment.

And yet, I don’t believe that the Times’ decision to downgrade its sports coverage can be divorced from the broader cultural, demographic and economic shifts in American society—above all, the deepening divides between highly educated professional elites and the hoi polloi, highbrow and lowbrow entertainment and upscale and downscale markets. Team sports, for a large segment of the Times’ readership, is beneath them.

This is the case despite the fact that team sports has never been more inclusive or diverse. Without a doubt, the most striking development in sports during my lifetime is the growth of women’s athletics. Other key developments include the internationalization of college and professional players and the dominance of Black, Latino and Latin American athletes. Now, more than ever, sports remains this country’s best example of achievement through merit and hard work.

College sports—which did more than anything else to help campuses shed their elitist image and build support and identification not only among alumni but the much broader general population—faces a particularly problematic future. While many small private colleges lean heavily on sports to recruit students, at most institutions, athletic departments are big money losers, despite student fees and donations. Instead of sharing sports revenue equitably, the NCAA privileges the major conferences, which, in turn, do their best to dominate broadcasting and access to national championships.

When I was at the University of Houston, my students included Elvin Hayes and Otis Birdsong, and Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were a familiar presence on my department’s floor. But at UT, in stark contrast, most athletes, irrespective of their sport, inhabit a very different universe, separate and apart from the rest of the undergraduate student body.

Despite continued investments in athletic facilities and coaches, the future of college sports could scarcely be less predictable. You know the issues as well as I do:

  • Will college athletes unionize?
  • Will the courts rule that women’s athletics have a right to equal funding?
  • Will damage claims over concussions and other athletic injuries or sexual abuses by team coaches or physicians render college sports financially unsustainable?
  • Will the legalization of name, image and likeness revenue further stratify college athletics and shatter any remaining illusions about the ideal of college athletic amateurism?
  • Will the most talented high school athletes forgo college altogether and enter development leagues instead?
  • Will students and their parents rebel against athletic fees?

It’s noteworthy that four of the top five picks in the NBA draft did not attend college.

During my youth, I considered the Times’ Robert Lipsyte the era’s best sportswriter. Anything but a blinkered, besotted sports fan, he never played down sports’ ugly underside. In an essay published 28 years ago, he described the history of American sports as a story of disenchantment. Sports, once the true American religion and the fans’ dreamland, had been invested with cultural symbolism. It embodied fair play, merit, courage, revenge, redemption and, yes, manly courage and met profound psychological needs: “sport became the new frontier, ‘the safety valve of an overworked nation,’ as one writer exclaimed; ‘artificial adventure, artificial colonizing, artificial war,’ as another put it, that would produce ‘a better-formed race.’” The public found inspiration in the dignity, grace, integrity, self-discipline, dedication and elegance of Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali.

But over time, sports was reduced to pure spectacle, nowhere more than on the college campuses which cynically and hypocritically speak of “scholar athletes” even as they exploit “underclass Black athletes.” Lipsyte also wrote about the mounting pressures on female athletes, including “anorexic gymnasts, 15-year-olds burned out by tennis daddies and swimmers who are sexually exploited by male coaches.”

The athletic entertainment industry may continue to boom. After all, it still generates superstars and produces its share of buzzer-beating baskets, walk-off home runs, game-winning catches, overtime goals and high-suspense penalty kicks. It now benefits from legalized sports gambling. But as Lipsyte argues, when competitive team sports lost its symbolic trappings and moral resonance, it was stripped of its true raison d’être.

Sports in the not-so-distant past was more than a game. It was life itself, only in a more heroic guise. Sports reflected “the America of our dreams” the sports stars were “idealized versions of ourselves.”

We can’t bring back competitive team sports’ former glory. But we can do something better. We can and should make participation in sports far more accessible and much more universal. Let’s embrace the first century Roman poet Juvenal’s ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body. As we all know, athletics can reduce stress, build community and contribute to our physical health and psychological well-being.

But sports isn’t just about physical fitness; it’s also filled with life lessons, about commitment, dedication, mental toughness, self-discipline, teamwork and handling anxiety, overcoming adversity and winning with humility and losing with dignity. I appreciate athletic talent just as I do any other form of excellence. But college sports is too important to be reserved for the gifted and talented.

I shouldn’t end on a mawkish or cloying note, because sports, above all, should be fun. So let me recite a few great lines from the most irreverent and playful sports movie of all, Bull Durham.

Perhaps you remember two memorable quotes from Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon): “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. And the only church that truly feeds the soul, day-in day-out, is the Church of Baseball.” Or “There are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance.”

Or how about this saying from the flaky flamethrower Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins): “A good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’”

Or the fading veteran Crash Davis, who introduces Nuke to “your friends, the clichés”: “We gotta play ’em one day at a time.” “I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ball club.” “I just want to give it my best shot and the good Lord willing, things will work out.”

In his classic 1938 study of the nature and significance of play in culture and society, Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga examines various kinds of games over the course of history from the ritualized games found in the classical world to the strategic games of the 20th century and argues that:

  • Play is a primary, indeed vital, component of human social life and cultural expression, and elements of play can be found in art, language, law, poetry, religion and even war.
  • Play occupies a distinct realm, with its own form of consciousness, separate and apart from ordinary life.
  • Play is essential for cultural development precisely because it allows individuals to stand outside ordinary life, is free from the normal rules of logic and causality, and combines pleasure, joy and amusement with seriousness and intense focus and engagement.
  • Play helps create social groups and bind them together.

Each society in every era has its distinctive forms of play. Team sports, which arose in tandem with the rise of industrial society, are but one form of play, and other forms of play, including video gaming and skateboarding, are already taking their place. But we must take care not to lose modern sports’ essential elements—above all, the ability to work together effectively and playfully as a team.

Play isn’t confined to human beings, but as Friedrich Schiller, the German philosopher and poet, observed in 1794, human beings are only fully human when they engage in play.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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