This is a paper I wrote for grad school years ago. Wow, looks amateurish to me now. Anyway, I want it to live online somewhere at some point, so that place is here and that time is now.
THE HOUSE THAT RUTH BUILT
Understanding the Relationship Between Sports and Electronic Media as a Way of Glimpsing the Future of Hybrid Forms of Games, New Media, and Narrative
By Daniel Smith-Rowsey
April 24, 2003
Forward-looking media critics’ latest pre-occupation is the hybridization of games, electronic media, and narrative. The search is on for video games that achieve the sublimity of some filmed narrative, and for filmed narrative that achieves an immersive, satisfying level of audience participation. Janet Murray asks, “Will the stories brought to us by the new representational technologies…develop beyond the pleasures of a compelling entertainment to attain the force and originality we associate with art?” Lev Manovich says that “new media designers and artists still have to learn…how to merge database and narrative into a new form.” But what if just such a form is hiding in plain sight, right in front of us throughout the history of electronic media, with the presence of professional sports and the ways we respond to them?
Marsha Kinder, in her quest for a new sort of interactive story-based hybrid, finds it most instructive to examine fiction-film “database narratives,” which are “narratives whose structure exposes or thematizes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories and that are crucial to language: the selection of particular data (characters, images, sounds, events) from a series of paradigms, which are then combined to generate specific tales.” While Kinder’s sampling is necessarily restricted to a handful of outstanding films, the world of professional sports provides a surfeited, operative series of supporting examples. Sports contributes significant antecedent to new media explorations of game-narrative cross-breeding, as well as a dangerous warning of an “invisible” ideology that permeates almost all game design and play.
SPORTS AS NARRATIVE
Games are not new to new media; games are not new to old media. Electronic media always begins as a delivery system, and the first thing it delivers is sports information. Cinema, as the story goes, began because of a sports bet. In 1882, Leland Stanford wanted to understand the positioning of a trotting horse’s hooves. Marconi and his wireless were brought to America in 1899 so that the results of a yacht race could be known as quickly as possible. The first known conception of anything like television (or cinema) – that is, of people sitting in a room of leisure watching a flat screen presenting moving images from somewhere else – came in an 1879 cartoon by George du Maurier, with a screen full of people playing cricket. The internet became part of our lives after we had grown accustomed to home computers because of video games. While there are other forms of narrative, cinema and television present the types of narrative that new-media designers seek to mobilize.
Electronic media, then, begins life as a provider of sport/game information, and only later realizes its narrative capabilities. Yet as it comes to present art, as it comes to occupy its medium specificity through narrative, it does not forget its origins in sports. Sports, in turn, have become so utterly re-defined by electronic media, particularly television, that they can no longer be conceived without it. (For sports I use Allen Guttmann’s definition – “autotelic physical contests” – which does not exclude video games.) Movies and TV, along with sports, have staked out unique, privileged places in the culture. They are the very leisure ground of the Anglo-Saxon world – they maintain near-total provenance over what ancient Romans called “bread and circuses.” We depend on them, every day, for both individual relief and cultural sharing that has nothing to do with government, weather, work, or finance. They are the indispensable part of the newspaper where we seek refuge from the bad news. Sports and electronic media provide what we call our “heroes,” in arenas of the fabulous. This is where men (and a few women) are allowed to play, and be celebrated for it by us. We are, in a sense, playing along. Johan Huizienga speaks of “play” as something that is ostensibly “irrational,” but somehow “a necessity both for the individual – as a life function – and for society.”
Fiction films and sports have key elements in common, elements that today’s video game designers and participant-importuning filmmakers may have sublimated to a point beyond questioning their necessity. Films were once called “photoplays.” Of course, a play is a theatrical production, but the verb is not unrelated to the noun. Both films and sports present playing. They are contained. They have rules. They are scripted, to a degree, yet allow for spontaneity. They are collective enterprises, yet they showcase individual achievement. Our heroes live there, and we pay to enter secular temples to see them. (Baseball’s Most Valuable Player award, the first of its kind in any sport, began two years after the institution of the Academy Awards.) Films and sports offer official sanction for violence, and, more often than not, sexism. They seem un-ideological, but in fact are perfect manifestations of our personality-oriented, individual-as-commodity culture. I will discuss ideology more in a little while.
But first, are sports really narratives? Aren’t they just games, with rules, played by athletes? A narrative, as defined by David Bordwell, consists of three distinct aspects: representation (how it signifies a world or ideas), structure (its nature as the sum of its parts), and an act (the presentation of the story to someone[s]). Professional sports fall into this definition. We in the audience experience them as stories. Sporting events, like films, are perfect, contained narrative events. We sit through hours to find out how it will end, to see who will win. But along the way, we are treated to hundreds of moments of mini-narratives. If the sport/film is designed well, each of these “minis” relates well to the overall result. For example, during an at-bat, a pitcher pitches to a batter. This scene is not unlike a little scene of tension during a Hollywood narrative film. At the end of the moment, someone wins the battle, and someone loses. But we don’t know which side wins the war until it’s time to go home. Sports in person, broadcast sports, and other content of electronic media, are the only three things that can provide these particular sorts of passive, observational narrative pleasures. As such, they verify each other.
Like Gulliver, who was sometimes a giant, and at other times an insect, each ball game is both the sum of even smaller narratives and at the same time a unit in an even larger narrative, the story of that year’s battle for the championship. And that story is but one part of the narrative of their field’s history, which is itself one thread in the quilt of the national narrative. These threads and connections are anything but static or shiftless: in fact, an entire industry of writers exists to second-guess every decision by every player, coach, manager, and owner. With the privileged role of sports in the culture, it shouldn’t be surprising that we use its language to re-define the time and space in our own lives, whether through “time outs,” “Monday morning quarterbacking,” “he shoots, he scores,” “getting to first base,” “home runs,” “three strikes and you’re out,” “slam dunks,” or “the whole nine yards.”
The ultimate effect of all storytelling is to privilege the authority of the storyteller. With every sports story comes, a brand, a logo, a city with which to assert your loyalty to something that seems based on ideas of manly activity untempered by ideology. Yet a rivalry between, say, Cincinnati and Cleveland does not make one want the other to leave the state. Instead, it creates familial relationships, where you will get the best of them next time. And sports, as an overall set of stories, say that this is the country that presents you these heroes in these tales of glory and woe, and the beauty of these stories proves the beauty of your country.
Professional sports are also heavily re-mediated, and this is where they may function close to Kinder’s “database narrative.” Both Kinder and Lev Manovich feel that the earliest, if not near-singular example of such a thing is Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera. I go back even further, to a time when baseball fans began scoring the games on little scoresheets. Every pitch, every swing, every at-bat, another statistic, yet also another sentence in an ongoing story. Following this, sports fans build their own connotative meanings through the vast accumulation of trivia. This trivia, manifested in trading cards and newspapers, allows the viewer to own sports narratives in a way that other narratives cannot be owned. The viewer can build their own Manovichian “hyper-narrative,” wholly dependent on the corporate-produced narrative, and fans can share their trivia, even competitively, creating even more paradigms. Sports are where a child first learns to “hierarchize,” a skill that insidiously manifests itself in all parts of life.
Sports can be, in the sense of Roland Barthes, as readerly or writerly as the perceiver permits, in a way that is unlike any film, show, or book. One can follow each game passively, allowing each mini-narrative to unfold into the larger narrative of who will win the championship this year, without undue application of semic or hermeneutic codes. On the other hand, sports provide a rather privileged sanctuary for gambling, which gives the audience an extremely personal investment (so to speak) in the outcomes. Gambling is a phenomenon that deserves more attention than this brief paragraph. Reductively, it codifies capitalism and commodification just as it makes the gambler feel that she is “playing” the game along with the professional team on which she has just wagered.
Furthermore, non-professional people play sports, and can directly imitate their heroes, applying proairetic codes with a regularity not seen in other walks of life. As a regular basketball player, I can testify that the glories and stories of televised basketball are never far from any player’s mind, and are in fact often imitated.
Sports are also special stories because they feel “real” in the sense that a tale told through one point-of-view (or even a few) does not. Their causality is above reproach – unlike with filmed narrative (and, for that matter, narrative-esque video games), the audience does not question the logic of one event coming after another. In team sports, anyone might be that day’s “hero.” In many ways, sports are the first multi-author narratives on any sort of broad or regular scale. Within the pre-established rules, sports are quite literally based on the (database-quantifiable) performances of the players – in an era which privileges performance above worth, character, or anything else besides commodity value. And professional sports’ athletes have considerable commodity value.
It is not enough for game designers to simply attempt to create an immersive world with interesting avatars. It is not enough for new filmmakers to incorporate interesting interactive elements. As they assign greater agency to players, they must pause to consider the ideology that North American players take for granted. In The Social Significance of Sport, the authors explain that “for many years competitive sport and physical education have been considered essential components [of] education during childhood and adolescence. Teachers, coaches, and the members of the mass media claimed that ideal character and moral traits (e.g. sportsmanship, honesty, courage, citizenship, cooperation, and achievement orientation) can be learned [in] sport. And many people believe that sport and games are the best or only setting where these desired attributes can be learned.” N.K. Denzin noted that “all forms of play teach or socialize young children into the illusory worlds of social reality.” Separately, it is axiomatic that films have taught all people we know how to dress, talk, walk, and kiss.
Sports and electronic media thus play crucial, requisite roles in socializing citizens. But in North America, what sort of dominant ideology is being promoted? B. Sutton-Smith notes that games foster an “enculturative outcome so that after many years of gaming, players ultimately become persons with wide repertoires of adaptive skills…relevant to the matters of crisis that concern the larger culture.” We are taught to be a very specific type of avatar. We are not taught, as some structurally complex, obedience-oriented cultures are, to place a heavy emphasis on games of strategy. We are not taught, as some very religious cultures are, to de-emphasize personal responsibility and play mostly games of pure chance. The writers of The Social Significance of Sport say that “Games of physical skill (e.g. sport)” – we may also include video games – “are more conspicuous when the culture places a high value on mastery of the environment and personal achievement.”
Thus we may congratulate ourselves on the way that our sports and other ludic games are proof of the best man winning, of competition yielding a fair victor – in a word, social Darwinism, which is deeply tied to our vision of the rectitude of our country. Darwinism writ large has its moral blind spots. Chauvinists often find comfort in its axioms. One is considered healthy and wise if one can just maintain one’s corner of the world, like an animal, and the rest of the world be damned. Justice for the wronged is not only out of reach, but in fact antithetical – the wronged were “fairly” wronged, and thus deserve to lose. The key to “social” Darwinism, as opposed to anything Darwin ever wrote, is the existence of rules. Learn the rules, master the rules, and whatever you achieve is what you deserve – sport and media teach us this. Even cheating isn’t so bad, as long as one does not attempt to question the rules themselves. Johan Huizinga writes, “The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself.” In other words, it’s all right to be Andrew Carnegie, or even John Dillinger, but the devil take you if you’re a Communist, or these days, a “terrorist” (whatever that is).
Allen Guttmann goes to lengths to prove that a “spectator’s admiration for athletes and their performances is to some degree tinged if not positively steeped in erotic impulses.” We also know from Christian Metz’s work the way in which cinema can be fetishized. In other words, both sports and cinema work on erotic channels, promising a perpetual renewal of life made all the more realistic because of the concomitant presentation of failure. Sports and films maintain singular control of time. They define units of time, but then manipulate it – sports with time outs, films with flashbacks, repetitions, slow-motions etc. This is very unlike the experience of other arts – sports and films allow the distinctive pleasure of feeling that time is controlled and uncontrolled. Cinema and sports suggest motion captured in time, an ongoing immortality – hence Roger Kahn’s redolent phrase “the boys of summer.” They allow Eros to triumph over Thanatos again and again – as with Scheherazade, their stories forestall death itself. Eros is where ideology is most easily disguised, and forgotten.
Closely related to considerations of ideology, it is time to consider the nature and role of heroes. In Athletes and the American Hero Dilemma, Janet Harris explains that heroes “are thought to help define individual and collective identity, compensate for qualities perceived to be missing in individuals or society, display ideal behaviors that people strive to emulate, and provide avenues for temporary escape from the rigors of daily life.” And when it comes to famous heroes, “Television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and movies have pervasive influence on the making of these public figures…Americans interpret such phenomena in various ways, and it is their own interpretations that make them meaningful.” It is hard to imagine our video game programmers and audience-soliciting filmmakers going forward without taking these interpretations into account.
Because athletes have carved a place in the culture as heroes/role models, actors may assume role model status without fear of pretension. Sports and film, as worlds, maintain sexual segregation. Women have no place in male sports (except, significantly, as cheerleaders). Women have their own sports. In Hollywood, women compete for their own acting Oscars. Film, as Laura Mulvey persuades, inevitably objectifies women. The first question for 21st century filmmakers and designers is if their new hero’s identity and glory comes at the expense of women.
Many researchers think that “heroes must be active leaders in the empowerment of subordinate groups,” and some think that stars of sports and media cannot be such heroes, while others believe that by role-modeling, stars do have such hero potential. Harris exhaustively juxtapositions “pessimists” and “optimists” in American hero research. There are those who believe that American society is dominated more and more by “anomie and disillusionment,” and some of these believe that heroes no longer really exist, while others of these show the “shallow” current heroes as evidence of a corrupting culture. Yet there are also more sanguine appraisers, who feel that culture and heroes are demonstrating and celebrating America’s diversity as never before, providing representation to previously marginalized groups, and groups within groups. (We in the audience sometimes root more enthusiastically for our favorite supporting players, both with screen dramas and sports.)
O.E. Klapp groups “athletes with entertainers such as actors, musicians, and singers – all noted for physical appearance and stage presence rather than deeper, more substantive virtues.” Klapp derides these “clear examples of celebrities who fail to emphasize high intellectual and moral standards, who reflect aspects of American society inconsistently, who maintain a front of likeability to conceal their actual inner shortcomings, and who emphasize showmanship over skill and substance.” Yet for others, the media’s invasive camera has helped to demythologize heroes, and make them all the more admirable by their attainability. Chalip and Chalip say, “By trivializing the athlete’s achievements – by linking success to personality – heroism becomes a matter of choice, rather than a matter of talent or luck…The Olympic athlete thus becomes a reassuring representation of the American spectator’s own heroic potential.” Again, this sounds like the sort of heroism that involves “getting one’s own,” and not the sort that involves pulling someone out of a burning building. It’s enough for our video game avatars to get a thousand points; a thousand saved lives is (usually) beyond the pale. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, following in the estimable footsteps of Babe Ruth, are perfect heroes for our culture: they are merely the best at the sport they play, and do not pretend toward munificence or philanthropy (despite the remonstrations of a very small minority of cranks).
Janet Harris uses pie charts and lists to show young persons’ choices of heroes. Entertainers and athletes dominate all lists, with non-famous people barely represented. Boys inevitably name men as heroes – fully 100% – while girls name about two-thirds men, one-third women as their heroes. When asked to name female heroes, boys named exactly no female athletes, and instead named 100% female entertainers. The world of sports renders females almost invisible. When they are seen they tend to be in short skirts – as with cheerleaders and female tennis players – making objectification easier. Sports thus provides unique, society-approved sanctuary for sexism. Electronic media, using sports as its first priority, is part and parcel of this sanction. But media’s “own” content is hardly egalitarian. Harris notes that in on American television in the 1980s, “the characters consisted of about 65% males and 35% females.”
Based on his study, J.L. Caughey points out that people take on characteristics similar to their media heroes. A fan becomes someone who “lives out experiences similar to those of the idol…in fantasy, the individual’s consciousness is ‘possessed’ by the media self; it colors perception, patterns decision making, and structures social behavior.” What are the specific traits that we find most worthy of emulation? Harris’s study finds that famous heroes are most highly praised for their “personal competence.” This involves “extraordinary talent coupled with ability to win; to a lesser extent it also has to do with endurance of hardships encountered.” This is what we prize; these are the sorts of avatars that video-game programmers must create to make a game popular enough to justify the startup costs; this is who we are.
REDUCTIVE HISTORY, RELATIONSHIP OF SPORTS AND ELECTRONIC MEDIA
Sports are not narrative events in the same way as, say, the novel “Crime and Punishment” – they are not (even hypothetically) the product of one mind, delivered to a passive audience. But electronic media has never been able to even presume to provide narratives from such singular sources. Film, radio, television, and now the internet, have always been understood as collective enterprises. The very first time that W.L. Dickson made any succession of photo frames, in 1891, he showed boxers sparring. Today’s new media pioneers want to know if Dickson told the boxers what to do, if perhaps they can mobilize a current author (or user) to manipulate the fate of two onscreen boxers, and what it would mean if they could. Before understanding that, we must first learn what happened between Dickson’s moment and ours. To comprehend the future of the composite incarnations of games and media-based narrative, we must see how they remediated each other in the past.
Benedict Anderson’s “last wave” of print-capitalist hegemony occurred around the same time as Dickson’s motion-picture innovation. 1882 to 1912 – the Progressive Era – was an unprecedented validation of many things secular and scientific. Edison presented his light bulb in 1880. President Garfield was shot in 1881, and with the help of the best medical minds of the time, his wound was unnecessarily expanded and infected until he died a few months later. Nietzsche declared God dead in 1881, Darwin passed away in 1882, Marx in 1884. All this diminished the influence of the Bible-oriented, and strengthened the influence of scientists. Scientifically validated physical fitness, what was then called “athletism,” became much more popular. Progressives championed athletism and physical activities including sports. As Mark Dyreson put it, “Progressives attempted to utilize sport as an instrument for directing modern energies in efficient directions, inculcating the democratic ethos, teaching respect for the law and constitutionalism, assimilating immigrants into American culture, assuaging the evils associated with cities and factories, and insuring the vigor of the nation.” It wasn’t only in America. The modern Olympics began in 1896 based on similar lofty ideals.
At the beginning of the century, the “savage” sports of baseball, boxing, basketball, and football were called unthinkably barbaric by the “ministers of reform,” moralists and sermonizers who also considered film and radio tawdry, amoral preoccupations. Thus, modern sports and cinema had a sort of natural alliance against those who would righteously defend America’s moral turpitude. The truth was that these “roughneck” sports needed motion pictures – to demonstrate how innocuous they were to those who didn’t know, and to show indifferent viewers how excited other viewers were at their spectacle. And film needed sports – for extravaganzas that suited the possibilities of the medium. (The chariot race in Quo Vadis was an early example.) Furthermore, the kinetic energy of cinema, of people making suddenly violent, passionate gestures, was confirmed (and perhaps inspired) by modern team sports. Sports and cinema proved each other’s authority. And it turned out that the very idea of a race, which most people had come to know through sports, was the film subject par excellence, as D.W. Griffith well understood, and through which he re-defined the nature of cinema.
Newspapers came to rely on sports and cinema, to interest those who couldn’t or didn’t want to read the long stories of, say, laborers creating the Panama Canal. William Randolph Hearst began his newspaper, he claimed, for “people who move their lips when they read.” Shortly before the first World War, he became the first to devote a part of his paper for a “sports section.” Team sports promised a new story every day a game was played, one that common people could understand and even own through scrutiny of statistics. Cinema also brought people new stories every time they went to the pictures.
1919 was the first post-war World Series, and interest was so high that the major leagues changed the Series from seven games to nine games at the last minute. A great deal of gambling money was at stake – enough to buy off one of the teams, the Chicago White Sox. The following year, courts began to investigate, and that was when radio went from an enthusiast’s hobby to a national fever. Radio may well have saved baseball from itself, because listeners loved hearing games as much as they loved hearing about the few scandalized players. Boxing had always had credibility problems among the educated classes – until 1921, when Madison Square Garden opened up to it, well aware of the potential radio audience. As the decade rolled on, and advertising became more regular on radio, basketball and football consolidated into national associations.
At the same time, Hollywood was taking on a similarly prominent role in the culture. It was also a large community of people with extraordinary physical gifts, writ large in the public imagination, some tainted by scandal, most just beautiful to observe. Photos only became common in newspapers during the war. Madison Avenue only began saturation of city life in the 1920s. And with images came a veritable image-ocracy, with people like Charlie Chaplin and Babe Ruth assuming the sort of stature that not long before could only belong to people like Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt. The power of representing the country had, almost overnight, shifted to the men running the studios, to the men behind the radio broadcasts, to the baseball teams. Physical fitness and beauty rose to the top of the cultural hierarchy. And without access to the physical gifts of their heroes, rabid sports and Hollywood fans abandoned the American Dream of pulling oneself up by one’s boot-straps in favor of passively watching men with chin-straps.
Mark Dyerson, writing about the 1920s, explains that “the ideology of the newer biographies celebrated the lives of the heroes of the world of entertainment and sport.” Dyerson writes, “In the 20s a new type of life history replaced those of the characters whom [biographer Leo] Lowenthal labeled productive – politicians, captains of industry, serious artists. The new stories concerned people (for) whom ‘almost every one of them is directly, or indirectly, related to the sphere of leisure time.’” Lowenthal wrote, “it is some comfort for the little man who has become expelled from the Horatio Alger dream, who despairs of penetrating the thicket of grand strategy in politics and business, to see his heroes as a lot of guys who (are) just like himself.” This was not a happy assessment.
It may well have felt democratizing; Babe Ruth, with his voracious, unapologetic pugnacity and rough look, seemed more like real America than heroes of a previous era. Yet he was distinguished by his talent. He achieved identification and alienation simultaneously, setting the tone for modern life.
The staggering, phenomenal outgrowth of sports, radio, and motion-pictures had much to do with Jazz Age euphoria. One might have thought that during the Depression, these leisure activities would have been asked to retrench. One would have been wrong. If anything, they were more important than ever. It wasn’t just Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats, but the rest of the chatter, including games. As Erik Barnouw put it in Tube of Plenty, “destitute families that had to give up an icebox or furniture or bedding still clung to radio as a last link with humanity.”
Americans in the 1930s were told by sports and other media-based stories that we will win if we work hard enough, a message that couldn’t be delivered too often. The leads of the films, and the athletes of the era, were seen as avatars who managed through blood, sweat, and tears to come up winners. Hollywood and sports were only getting better (and fairer), and our potential for improvement was through them preserved. We who were not athletes and actors had not succeeded at their game, but we admired them, and by extension had the chance to succeed at our own games (often in corporations or family). Sports and that era’s films and radio shows always suggested redemption, and victory, no more than a year away. Dozens of quotidian stories fostered a complicity, an acceptance of passing strife, which stood in contrast to previous generations’ reactions to hard economic times. Furthermore, this sort of storytelling convinced us we would win World War II. It may have even helped us do so.
While boxing had always been integrated – and thus so roughneck that only charismatic whites like Dempsey and Tunney were able to bring it to the mainstream – baseball had maintained race lines. There were the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues. (In this, baseball was not unlike the first few modern Olympics, which had separate, and demeaning, events for non-whites.) If Adolf Hitler had been so personally rattled at the stellar track performance of Jesse Owens, if our fight against the Nazis had been for morally superior reasons (unlike during WWI), then it was simply gross hypocrisy for Major League Baseball to continue to exclude non-whites. Ten years after Jesse Owens’ 1936 gold medal, the Brooklyn Dodgers drafted Jackie Robinson. Ten years after Joe Louis became heavyweight champion in 1937, Robinson began to play for the Dodgers. Soon, all of baseball became integrated, and the other major team sports followed suit.
Sports and film and radio maintained gender lines, but helped break down race lines. (In this, they were not unlike Congress, which gave black men the right to vote 55 years before it extended the same privilege to any women.) Owens, Louis, and Robinson were direct antecedents to Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. They suggested: if there, why not here? Film had had the same effect for the opposite reason. Hollywood’s great milestones – Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, Gone With the Wind – suggested the need for better black representation.
This is where the atmosphere of American sports may seem like a wholly positive thing. While the “rules” of corporate boardrooms and schools may be difficult to change, requiring legislation battles to counteract the wishes of the likes of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace, the rules of sports are subjective, and within the grasp of a few select men. Should these men see profit in change, such change can occur. If the people seem to ask for equality (through letters to the editor and such), these men can make sports the spearhead. However, we have seen how the same selectivity can be just as counter-productive. When baseball Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey publicly cancelled an anniversary celebration of the Ron Shelton feature film Bull Durham, because recent anti-war statements by invited guests Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon have, in Petroskey’s words, “put our troops in even more danger,” it showed not only the problem with relative insularity, but how sports and film continue both their close relations and positions as cultural battlegrounds.
As with radio and cinema, television’s incipient moments were related to sports. Less than a month after David Sarnoff introduced television to America in April 1939, he found something people wanted to see – the Princeton v. Columbia baseball game. As Eric Barnouw recounts, “By the time the unit went to Ebbets Field for a double-header between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds, it had acquired a second camera.” Television was put on hold, more or less, during the war, but afterward TVs first appeared to large segments of the public in taverns, gathering crowds to watch sporting events.
Like other electronic media, television wisely served sports at first, but unlike the others, TV quickly proved that it had the power to become the master. When home sets became common, sports attendance plunged, proving that pro sports’ careful handling of broadcast rights would become, as Barnouw put it, “a matter of life or death.” Meanwhile, TV searched for its own medium specificity. In the first half of the 1950s, almost everything on TV, including fiction, was done live, in a presumption, borrowed from sports and radio, that viewers demanded liveness from home-received narratives. Just as the popularity of shows like I Love Lucy seemed to augur a direction away from liveness and games, executives hit upon the idea of live game shows. Edward R. Murrow, probably television’s most trusted presence for its first decade, saw the coming of “The $64,000 Question” and presciently asked a colleague, “Any bets on how long we’ll keep this time period now?”
Game shows turned out to be both television’s glory and folly, because no one was quite sure how to narrativize them. The rules of pro sports, while evolving and subject to the sort of change that Jackie Robinson represented, were nonetheless essentially reliable year to year, and even “common-sense” for most. The rules of game shows were no such thing, and when ratings went stratospheric, a lot of money became suddenly involved. (Sports had built its profits far more steadily.) The men in charge made heady, ultimately misguided narrative decisions. Sports, among other factors, had conditioned Americans to believe in what they saw as fair play, and the realization that game shows were rigged was compared by President Eisenhower to the betrayal by the 1919 Chicago “Black” Sox. TV producers saw themselves building a narrative much like magicians, or movie producers – no one asks if the lady really got sawed in half. But Americans, accustomed to game narratives that meant “real” competition, ended the “fixed” era with their loud protests.
Before school history books ever reflected the achievements of non-white males, sports heroes of the 60s and early 70s pioneered the inclusion of marginalized groups. Foremost among these was, of course, heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali. Now often called the greatest athlete of the century, Ali was a lightning rod of controversy in his heyday, carving out in the national narrative positions for both Muslims and people who disagreed with the war in Vietnam. Billie Jean King, the great tennis player, established feminism in a way that few other feminists could, proving in “The Battle of the Sexes” that she could beat a man (well, Bobby Riggs) at his own game. Latinos and Asians – or, as they were then called, Chicanos and Orientals – remained essentially absent from sports and electronic media for many years, and thus absent from their rightful place in newspapers and policy decisions.
If there was one man who seemed to intuitively understand the symbiotic relationship between sports, television, and narrative, that man had to be Roone Pinckney Arledge, the head of sports programming for ABC in the 1960s and 1970s. As Randy Roberts and James Olson explain, “Arledge was convinced that he could use sports to entertain people who were not really sports fans. ‘What we set out to do,’ he said, ‘was to get the audience involved emotionally. If they didn’t give a damn about the game, they might still enjoy the program.’” This sort of style-over-substance ethos would eventually have profound implications for the values of the society. In the main, Arledge “recommended the use of directional and remote microphones, the use of hand-held and ‘isolated’ cameras, [and] the employment of split screen.” Several of Arledge’s directors became famous for their “T and A shots,” emphasizing titillation over ‘pure’ sport. The TV viewer of 1950s sports had heard “a damp, muffled roar, similar to hearing the sea from a half mile away.” Arledge “developed the rifle-mike to pinpoint sound,” allowing the full measure of the crack of the bat, the squeak of the shoes, the clash of shoulder pads and helmets. Arledge was also directly responsible for the instant replay – in 1960 he asked an ABC engineer “if it would be possible to replay something in slow motion so you could tell if a guy was safe or out or stepped out of bounds.” The engineer, Bob Trachinger, designed the device. This replay-ability, if you will, would also contain profound implications. Soon the most avant-garde film narratives would emphasize repetition, and deal with new meanings constructed when the same event is seen over and over.
Roone Arledge emphasized the stories of sports in a more generalized way. “Wide World of Sports,” which began in 1961, circled the globe to bring all sorts of sports and athletic activities to home viewers, all couched within narrative terms. Roberts and Olson say that “It fit perfectly into Arledge’s definition of sports as entertainment.” Arledge even wrote the famous introductory line, promising “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” Arledge’s vision was for “a year-round sports show that could fill the void [between sports seasons] and not have to worry about blackouts.” Prerecorded shows could be edited to increase suspense and eliminate dead time. Events that took hours could be shown in minutes, with enough time to tell viewers a little about the personal struggles of the athletes. Arledge notes “people do enjoy the knowledge that something different will be coming every ten minutes.” Arledge grasped – and precipitated – an era when viewers would reach for their remote controls as often as possible. The American audience was judged – and formed – to be impatient, to value gaudy style, to demand quick rushes of kinetic images. More fictionalized narratives followed suit.
In a way that Peter Brooks would appreciate, Roone Arledge understood how to “extend the middle.” Arledge brought football to prime-time – “Monday Night Football” – by assembling his broadcaster booth with as much consideration for cast color as any fiction show. Marching-band halftime shows were cut out so that the announcers could describe narrative aspects of the game and its players. The show was and is a tremendous success, outlasting all other prime-time shows. For the Olympics, Arledge did much the same thing, using TV-friendly broadcasters to emphasize the narrative qualities – the stories – of the athletes. Now, sports championship broadcasts are TV’s highest rated events, followed closely by their pre-show and post-show broadcasts – Brooks’ “extended middles” holding sway. Brooks questioned how much people really want closure. Arledge let people choose – on the one hand, each game ends, each season ends, but on the other hand, the larger, year-round “wide world of sports” spins on, promising a never-ending supply of tales of victory and defeat. It was on this premise that ESPN was founded in 1981 – originally, tellingly, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. At this point, sports is unimaginable without the bells and whistles, without the forests worth of published jibber-jabber about the games, without the narratives and the citizenry’s over-narratives. It’s Roone’s world, we just live in it.
After television, the next revolution in media was the internet. This time, instead of the impetus coming from sports, the catalyst was video games. The first video game was actually based directly on a sport: Pong, basically table-tennis in two dimensions. But the video game revolution was about more sophisticated games, ones that allowed users to reproduce the kinetic activities of sports on their own TV sets. The home computer propagation was, to some highbrow effetes, about writing, spreadsheets, and office work. Yet it would have been unthinkable without people who wanted machines where they could play cooler and cooler games. Only some of these were directly based on sports, though sports-based video games played a critical role in keeping the video game market afloat in the uncertain late 80s and early 90s.
With the rise of the internet, home computer games have become increasingly interactive. Janet Murray wonders, “Can we imagine the future of electronic narrative any more easily than Gutenberg’s contemporaries could have imagined War and Peace or than the Parisian novelty seekers of 1895 could have imagined High Noon?” It seems logical to look to sports, once again, for the subject and soul of a new media-based art form. In recent years, it has become fashionable for coaches to speak of a “12th player” in the stands, with audiences providing decisive support for their teams. The new hybrid may have something to do with pro wrestling, where the audience has shown a unique ability to tolerate fictional narrative in the context of men in ostensible tough physical competition. It may have something to do with the film Rollerball, which presents a dystopian corporate-manipulated population that finds satisfaction in bloody combat- related sports. “American Idol” may someday be seen as prescient, with competitors on TV vying for America’s votes, turning themselves into product. Murray suggests that the internet could be the next stage of capitalist-socialist conflict, “turning the struggle between the blasters and the builders into a kind of worldwide morality play.” This may well emerge as some sort of sport. What ABC calls “enhanced TV” is used mostly in sports broadcasts, when viewers are told to vote about a particular call or play. So far, these votes have yet to affect the decisions of coaches or players, but who knows?
Sports and games are the first priority of new media forms, and as they develop their medium specificity, they retain properties from their origins. New media and internet games that seek to “narrativize,” as well as narratives that seek new levels of interactivity, have much to learn from the extant example of pro sports and the ways in which people have historically used them. This essay does not pretend to be an exhaustive account of all of sports’ illuminative qualities. This is only an opening salvo.
Furthermore, sports do not answer new media questions about “full” interactivity. “Users” do not control the lives of athletes. Yet sports provide significant antecedent to partially remediated game-based narratives. The popularity of sports suggests that people favor narratives that can on one hand be enjoyed passively, and on the other hand yield unforeseen pleasures to the more active spectator. People can be trusted to “own” competition by hierarchizing players and games and by mobilization of trivia. The field is surely open for more database narratives.
Sports, as well as everything else on film and TV, is fiction, yet real. These narratives give us the feelings of pleasure we sometimes associate with art – they give us an immersive sensation that other art achieves only rarely. They let us be loyal to something that seems without ideology. Americans want the “best man” to win. We like our chauvinist, social Darwinist ideology, rendered imperceptibly. Within that ideology, we need successful heroes with striking personalities, and enjoy feeling closer to them than we do to our friends, because they have shown themselves to be excellent and beautiful. They played the game and won. We didn’t. In tiny minutes of sports and films, one can be out, and then return. As we extrapolate this into a larger narrative, we see that one can be disgraced, then redeemed. We need to see that played out again and again, so that we believe it for ourselves.
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