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Neal Gabler

The ‘sportification’ of America

Our pitched battles on the playing field have seeped into everything, from politics to finance to gossip

By Neal Gabler
September 12, 2010

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EVERY DIEHARD sports fan knows that he can alight in any city in America, spin the radio dial, and find the familiar tones of other sports fans sounding off on LeBron James, Tom Brady, or Alex Rodriguez or the deficiencies of their own local teams. And every political junkie knows that he can land in the same city, spin the radio dial, and find fellow politicos sounding off in much the same way on President Obama or Afghanistan or the Tea Party movement.

That is not a coincidence. Sports is a central component of America life — the glue that holds men together, and some women, too. But it has also become the template for how we shape and process things that have nothing to do with athletics. Essentially, we have learned to “sportify’’ nearly everything — politics, finance, gossip, movie criticism, even theological controversy — into a kind of sporting event with all its media accoutrements. We get the “color’’ man explaining what we’re seeing; the endless postgame analysis; the ping pong debate by experts over what should or should not have been done; and, finally, the public weighing in hour after hour after hour.

Take politics. It is not enough for television to broadcast a debate or a presidential speech or a policy announcement unadorned. These are invariably followed by an immediate post-mortem, then a much lengthier — and typically noisier — discussion among the talking heads on cable news networks and talk radio, and then the viewers or listeners offering their opinions. And no debate is complete without a final verdict as to who won, and every presidential address and policy announcement is judged on whether the president succeeded or failed. It is all framed exactly like a sporting event, with the same overheated rhetoric.

Or take finance. Tune in CNBC, for example, and you are likely to find an expert in front of a colorful graphic that looks like something out of ESPN’s SportsCenter, and he or she will be explaining why a particular stock is rising or falling. That is followed, as the night the day, by other experts discussing — or arguing about — the issue. The words may be financial, but the situation is pure sports: again, “color’’ men, arguments, pedantic analysis, winners and losers.

One doesn’t have to look very far to find a reason why the media, especially cable television, have done this. It heightens drama. Sports is addictive precisely because it is a contest with suspense, rooting interest, and excitement, and the evidence of the appeal is ESPN and Fox Sports Network, as well as hundreds of local television and radio programs. Fans love not only to watch the games but to hear a dissection of what they’ve seen and to put in their own two cents. It is a powerful form of engagement.

But if we have become accustomed through decades now of sports programming to view other segments of the culture through the same sort of prism, it is not just a matter of networks slapping sports formats on them. These formats work because American culture generally has become more contentious, more like a sporting contest.

Indeed, something has happened to America that has made sports into a metaphor for the entire society. We are more polarized now than we have been in a long time, and the kind of irreconcilable divisions between Red Sox and Yankees fans or Celtics and Lakers fans are not all that different from the equally irreconcilable divisions between Democrats and Republicans.

We also seem to be more apt to argue about anything than at previous times in our history. This is certainly true of the media. We are more opinionated, thanks in part to the Internet, which privileges any and all opinions as if they are of equal weight. We seem to be more conscious of winners and losers than ever before, and we seem to be less forgiving of those on the other side. Taken together, then, all the elements that we associate with sports fandom have gradually leached into those other domains until we have come to see huge chunks of our culture in the same divisive terms as we have always seen in sports. In short, we have a sports mind-set, and though media sportification didn’t cause it, it certainly helps intensify it.

In the final analysis, it just may be that in a complex world it is both simpler to see things this way, as a two-sided contest, and also much more satisfying because the microscopic analysis — it is even called “inside baseball’’ — makes us feel as if we have cracked the code and gotten inside. We love our sports because we love the drama they purvey, the clear demarcations they provide, the emotions they elicit, the energy they demand, and the engagement they reward. We love sports coverage because it extends these long past the end of the game. What was once true only of sports is now true of nearly everything else. It’s ESPN’s world, and we’re just living in it.

Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’

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