Thursday, April 23, 2009

The myth

It's been an interesting week for me when it comes to the sports journalism business. I've been interviewed about it by one college student, given advice to a recent graduate (it surprisingly was not along the lines of "apply at Dunkin' Donuts"), and attended a symposium on sports journalism at St. Bonaventure University. It's good to think about the big issues every so often, instead of simply "feeding the machine" every day to make sure a newspaper comes out.

During a panel discussion at St. Bonaventure, one of the professors asked about the "myths" that exist in the world of sports, without actually referring to anything specific. That can cover a variety of areas, of course -- I've always thought sport reveals character, rather than builds it, for example.

But here's perhaps the biggest myth of all, depending on your viewpoint: The results matter. Maybe I should say, "The results matter."

There are all sorts of athletic competitions that go on across the country in a given year. The outcomes matter, a lot, to a certain subset of the population. A win can make fans of the team happy, euphoric, and/or emotional. A loss can make fans sad, angry, and/or bitter. Nothing "important" changes either way. Political decisions rarely generate that sort of passion, but that's not surprising in a world when more people know the name of the Bills backup quarterback in 2008 than their Congressman. It's not necessarily bad, but it is reality.

Now in one sense, there's not much difference between a game involving the Buffalo Bills of the NFL and a game featuring the semipro Buffalo Gladiators. There are two teams playing football under basically the same rules. The playing field is the same, a score is kept, and a winner is declared. Obviously, the skill level is different, but fans of a game often just want well-matched teams, a competitive game and an exciting finish no matter who is involved.

But, and it's a big but, we have more than 100 years of experience in some sports telling us that some games matter, and some don't. Western New York has been pretty well trained in 50 years that a Bills' victory is "our victory." They "matter," and so the stands are filled, the television sets are watched, and the media outlets are saturated. But those perceptions can turn quickly; remember when the Sabres were going through bankruptcy and crowds dropped into four figures overnight?

The level of interest can vary by the sport, too. Soccer doesn't have a particularly long history in this country, and the authorities in charge have never been able to figure out how to make the nation's top professional league and its results matter to a great many people.

What's really interesting, though, is how you can take any individual or group you want, and come up with a "matter" scale from 1 to 100 and drop a particular event on it. Fans have an instant friend with those on the same point on a scale, and have an instant target for good-natured "get a life" abuse for those higher on the scale. For example, a person might have Bills' season tickets and never miss a game, but he or she might make fun of someone who watches all 16 hours of the NFL Draft after making up 19 different versions of a mock draft in the previous three months. There's a line there, and it's all a case of what matters.

I just finished watching a documentary called "Go Tigers," which is about the high school football team in Massillon, Ohio, of 1999. The movie doesn't date at all, as I assume the town still is hopeless devoted to following the gridiron exploits of its 17-year-olds. I wasn't even much of a high school football fan when I was in high school, but it's clear that it's the biggest thing in the lives of many there, a rallying point for the community. These people allowed eighth graders to stay back a year so that they are bigger and stronger than they otherwise would be when they are juniors and seniors. That would horrify some, be normal behavior to others.

It's nice that sports in general matter to so many. They cross all sorts of sociological, economic and cultural lines, and bring strangers together ("and if you like the Red Sox, you're my friend"). Heck, it keeps me employed at some level. But, it is fascinating to see how people react to the myth in so many different ways.

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