Friday, June 22, 2012

Aujourd'hui, Une M├ęditation Sur Le Sport

Today, Eags goes all philosophical on sport in our time (June 2012) and considers homo ludens on grass, hardwood, and roadsides. Today's post took this blogger down memory lane in recalling Allen Guttmann's seminal work From Ritual To Record (1978) in sport studies. It was at Guttmann's virtual knee (and other low joints) that this blogger learned about homo ludens. If this is a (fair & balanced) consideration of sport in society, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Schadenfreude Sports Fan
By Timothy Egan

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Tough week. Blistering heat. Europe on the brink. The activist Supreme Court just days from possibly taking health care away from millions. And then, those diversions of lasting consequence on the court and on the pitch.

It would be wonderful to be able to give a full-throated swoon of love to basketball’s king or Europe’s top soccer dog. But duplicity, betrayal and peripheral political misconduct have muddied the waters. For the thinking sports citizen, beaten down by the corporate adultery of team-stealing owners and the preening of certain national soccer teams, it’s not easy to raise a banner without an asterisk.

The schadenfreude sports fan, therefore, has little choice but to wish ill upon the more odious villains, with gusto. You choose your victor-aspirant based on who does the least evil.

Basketball, for this Seattle native, was the easiest choice. People hate LeBron James of the Miami Heat for reasons that have nothing to do with his otherworldly talent. And in the Oklahoma City Thunder we have the sweet shot of Kevin Durant and the cool beard of James Harden.

But the pick here was always clear: Heat! The owners of Oklahoma City’s team stole them from Seattle — Durant was the first-round draft choice of the SuperSonics — after lying about whether they would keep them in the city where they were born, and beloved for 41 years.

It’s a redundancy, of course, to fuse liars and team owners. Let me add extortionists as well. The leverage of choice is to threaten a town with loss of an institution that provided memories for countless families. They play with our emotions as they reach for the civic purse. If denied, they flee for fresh suckers.

In Seattle’s case, an arena remodeled with considerable public effort in 1995 and praised by Commissioner David Stern of the N.B.A. as a first-rate facility was suddenly declared obsolete and unworthy of housing the team a mere seven years later. New owners from Oklahoma City claimed to want to keep the team in Seattle, but e-mails between them later revealed the opposite.

So, the team that won the N.B.A. championship in 1979, and that has a history that that includes Bill Russell as a coach, and players like Gary Payton and Lenny Wilkens, was torn from Seattle and replanted in Oklahoma City in 2008.

There, the former Sonics play in something called Chesapeake Energy Arena, named for a troubled natural gas company. If you own shares in Chesapeake, you burn every time you hear the name; the stock has plunged more than 50 percent during the last year, and the company has been hit with more than a dozen shareholder lawsuits. Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake’s chairman and a co-owner of the Thunder, is facing inquiries by the I.R.S., the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Ohio Attorney General over his use of the company as a personal A.T.M. for his lavish and leveraged lifestyle.

It takes a rare skill to be named “America’s Most Reckless Billionaire,” as McClendon was on the cover of Forbes magazine last year. He bankrolls anti-gay initiatives, and was a chief financier behind the dishonorable smearing of the honorable record of a Vietnam veteran — the Swift Boat attack on John Kerry. There is simply no comparison between LeBron James’s move from Cleveland to Miami, and the misery and ugliness that this owner, McClendon, has brought to the public square. Good to see his team lose.

But I’m in the minority on this. An ESPN map based on fan preference showed that only two states — Florida and Washington — were rooting for the Heat. And I can already hear complaints from Sacramento, which may lose its struggling basketball team to investors trying to bring professional hoops back to Seattle.

So, let me make a pitch to every baseball fan whose heart still bleeds from the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers, every driveway hoopster who can remember when Buffalo had an N.B.A. team (now the Los Angeles Clippers), every football lover who still can’t believe that Los Angeles lost its Rams to St. Louis. In good conscience, you can never support the Oklahoma City robber barons.

On to soccer. All month, the beautiful game has offered brisk match-ups to determine the European Championship, the greatest crown outside of the World Cup. Friday’s match in the quarterfinals — Greece versus Germany — presents the schadenfreude sports fan with a real dilemma.

The Germans are dominant, quick-striking, imperious. And then there is the soccer team, a match for the way the national government treats Greece. The Greeks are the proverbial plucky underdogs. But you also have that profligate spending, refuse-to-collect-taxes-while-defaulting-on-your-bonds thing that threatens to bring down the global economy and put the kind of people that Aubrey McClendon supports in charge of the country.

I have to go with Greece over their biggest creditor. This ancient civilization needs the lift. Germany already owns everything in Europe.

Elsewhere, golf has been an easy schadenfreude call ever since the serial adulteries of Tiger Woods came to light. Whatever cool young linksman or gentlemanly veteran can make Tiger groan is my guy.

Next month is the Tour de France. Count me among the legion of lovers of this fantastic race who have arrived at the sad conclusion that most cyclists are blood-doping, making a hero hard to come by. Sigh.

And yet, though I burn at the character flaws of otherwise flawless athletes, the avarice of owners and the arrogance of national teams, I can’t hate the games. Never. In a world of predictable follies, these compact dramas on grass, hardwood or roadsides are among the last unscripted events of modern life. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company

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