Monday, June 2, 2008 Updated: June 5, 11:39 AM ET
Why do Americans care only about football, baseball and basketball?
By Michael Weinreb Special to Page 2
I was in a hotel room in Prague a few weeks ago, watching a Czech-language broadcast of a sport I did not know existed. A dozen men stood on a basketball court that appeared to have been fingerpainted by aliens, chasing after an orb that looked like smaller version of a Nerf soccer ball. Occasionally someone would dribble, then stop, then run four steps, then dribble again -- like a fourth-grade rec-league point guard (or Michael Jordan). Then someone would leap forward over what appeared to be either a 3-point line or the demarcation of an invisible electric cattle fence and would hurl the ball at a petrified goaltender, who would throw a hand up in desperation, as if trying to hail a passing bus.
Do you know what sport this is? The author wasn't sure at first.
Often, men collided, and often, someone bled. At one point, a player on the green team applied a wrap -- possibly made of Bounty paper towels -- around his head, then rejoined the fray. The fans appeared to enjoy this immensely, although it was impossible to tell which team was the home team -- many people in the crowd wore green but appeared to cheer wildly for the blue team. A strange noise, like a horse whistle, kept trilling in the background. Apparently, this was some sort of championship game, because when it was over (after what was either an overtime period or a bonus round), the blue team hoisted a trophy, and both teams went to their locker rooms to bleed in peace.
It's always disconcerting to spend time in a country where you do not speak the language. But it is equally disconcerting to realize that their conception of popular sports also is radically different, and also diverse; later that day, on the same channel, I watched men play soccer in sand. Meanwhile, on another channel, some consequential men's gymnastics meet was nearing its climax. It all seemed very quaint and bizarre, as if I were watching ESPN at 3 a.m. in July 1982.
I'm guessing that if you're reading this and you were born in the continental United States, and you are not related to Bart Conner, the notion of a consequential men's gymnastics meet comes across as an oxymoron. There are no consequential men's gymnastics meets in America and there never will be. And maybe this does not make you especially sad, but I think it is endemic of a larger trend. Which is that, for better or worse, we are becoming an increasingly homogeneous sports culture.
We are several weeks removed from author Buzz Bissinger's televised diatribe (on HBO's "Costas Now") about the evils of the Internet, and nothing has changed. Newspapers are still dying. Blogs are still proliferating. But what if Bissinger were making the wrong argument (though doing so at admirable volume)? What if all these media outlets do indeed have something in common? What if the real question we should be asking about the proliferation of online media, and about the argument/analysis model that dominates televised sports, is not whether it is lowering the discourse, but whether it is actually narrowing the discourse?
This may seem paradoxical, since the whole notion of blogs is that they are a democratizing force. But it's also true that blogs (and the Internet in general, and this Web site and its accompanying networks) now traffic largely in minutiae. And that can be great. The wonder of this new media stratosphere is that you can, if you wish, read a 4,000-word diatribe on the run-producing potential of Dustin Pedroia, and you can watch a half-hour television program during which several burly men discuss the existential implications of fourth-and-1, and you can know more about Matt Leinart's social life than his own mother does.
But another product of all this analysis, and overanalysis, is that what was once considered news -- that is, news that does not fit into the dominant paradigms of football, baseball and basketball -- is now often an afterthought, at least among the major players.
For instance: Were you aware that, in mid-May, the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world, Justine Henin, retired? She just quit. If this had happened in 1983, Frank Deford would have written a 17-page cover story about it in Sports Illustrated. Today, I probably wouldn't have even known Henin retired if I hadn't been watching CNN International (which, it should be noted, is entirely different than CNN domestic, in that it actually focuses on news, rather than 22 hours of political arguments involving Donna Brazile). As far as I can tell, the nation's most highly trafficked sports blog, Deadspin, did not write about Henin at all, except for a confusing one-line double entendre about "ball men." And if Deadspin had written about her retirement, it most likely would have been assailed by commenters for bothering to write about a tennis player who was not posing for Playboy.
The NHL's fan base has taken a hit -- the question is, how much of a role have the sports media played in this?
This week, a horse will run for the Triple Crown, and no one under the age of 70 who does not subscribe to the Daily Racing Form particularly seems to care. I used to enjoy boxing, but now I could not name a single fighter in the heavyweight division. Most of us do not see any reason to watch a golf tournament unless Tiger Woods is leading on Sunday. The Indianapolis 500 was two weekends ago, and all I know is that the man who won was not named Danica. The Stanley Cup finals are under way, and I did not know the Stanley Cup finals were under way, nor who was involved, until I watched Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser on "Pardon the Interruption" discuss whether Sidney Crosby could make hockey "relevant" again. The discussion of whether any sport besides football, baseball or basketball is relevant is pretty much the only context in which such a sport gets mentioned on most blogs, sites or TV shows.
The answer to the above question, of course, is that it's too late for any of these sports to become truly relevant again. They will have fleeting moments of wider interest, and they will have their niches online, but this only gives the "mainstream" -- both in the fast-developing blogosphere and in traditional media -- another reason to ignore them. With the exceptions of mixed martial arts (boosted by savvy marketing), NASCAR (boosted by demographics) and soccer (boosted by contrarian Anglophiles), it is hard to imagine any "minor" sport becoming more popular in America than it is right now, largely because the mainstream doesn't see the need or possess the depth of knowledge to endlessly dissect it. (Case in point: Baseball has made an absolute joke of itself in recent years yet still remains at least the third-most popular sport in America.) Even the Olympics seem to engender general cultural distaste, as if we no longer have any interest in being force-fed two weeks of long jumping and backstroking.
I am not saying this is good or bad, especially since I am as guilty as anyone. I also will admit I found this sport I was watching while in Prague -- which Wikipedia tells me is known as "team handball" -- frustratingly incomprehensible. And I was confounded by the lack of coverage of a supposedly "continental" sport like the NBA. It was easy to wonder, as I watched an especially long recap of a minor French tennis tournament on the BBC, why the rest of the world could not follow our lead.
Such is life as an American sports fan in the new media universe. Our tastes are provincial, our ways are set, and there is nothing you, I or even Bart Conner can do to change it.
Michael Weinreb's book "Game of Kings: A Year Among the Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team" has been released in paperback by Gotham Books. He is currently working on a book about sports in the 1980s. He can be reached at michaelweinreb.com.