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Can there be anything more graceful and more athletically inspiring than a downhill slalom racer carving between the gates and proceeding at stunning speeds to vie for a medal? As a passionate skier, my personal favorites are downhill races and ski jumps, but whether it be ice dancing, figure skating competitions, triathlons, or even snowboarding, the recent Vancouver Olympics, in all of their international pomp and circumstance, reminds us of the place of athletic competitions in defining our humanness. It is exactly as the lead author, Sam Schuman, would have it in his well-written essay: the limits but also the glories of physical achievement, the role of hard work, and the importance of others in anything that we achieve, teamwork being essential to even individual events since there is always a support group behind even the single competitor.
How regrettable, then, that Professor Schuman chose to organize his essay, despite his opening disclaimers, around the medium of intercollegiate sports in his paean to athleticism. While it is true that he also gives a passing nod to intramural competitions and personal athletic prowess, the images that he conjures, at least to this Texas denizen, run more to “Saturday Night Lights” than to “Downhill Racer.” In taking the tack that he has, he has underlined, in my mind, one of the true catastrophes of American culture; in the process, the message of what athleticism can truly mean has been curiously obscured. The catastrophe is that we have become a society of observers, and this is perhaps nowhere more evident than in our relationship to intercollegiate athletics and its “grown-up” manifestation, professional sports. The fact, for example, that the recent Super Bowl activities registered the largest viewing audience in TV history, now surpassing the last television episode of M*A*S*H, is certainly worth noting (National Football League: Super Bowl XLIV website).
We historians look for societal markers of the status and health, past and present, of our national community, and for me the increasing popularity of Super Bowl Sunday, much like the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, marks a turning point in American civilization. Guantanamo threatens, from my perspective, the rule of law, a hallmark of our national identity and character. Super Bowl Sunday is similarly enervating. In all of the hoopla surrounding the Super Bowl, we have taken what is essentially an utterly trivial pursuit (does it make one iota’s worth of difference to the human situation whether the New Orleans Saints or the Indianapolis Colts win or lose?) played out by grossly overpaid performers, and we have turned it into an artificially constructed “cosmic event.” Is even one child helped by this competition to climb out of poverty or ignorance? Is a senior citizen provided with even a modicum of improvement to her wellbeing in her declining years? Is any nation nudged toward greater accommodation and a more peaceful co-existence with its neighbors? Is any municipality (with the possible exception of Miami) assisted in its economic doldrums? (Vancouver, just for the record, has been left with a billion dollar tax hangover.) We are essentially saying, as a society, that it is perfectly fine, first of all, to focus nationally and obsessively on a completely inconsequential occurrence and, secondly, to be thoroughly passive observers in the process. Athleticism has become simply a spectator phenomenon. And where does it all start? I do not need to stress that, as Pavlovian mammals, we are conditioned to “Superbowlism” in our college or even our high school years. We are encouraged to believe that the victory of my university team over your university team is a matter of supreme importance. It simply is not.