The sporting life -- it isn't what it used to be


A century ago, sports were decried in many pulpits as the devil's handiwork, an avenue to gambling and brutishness.

But society's view of all forms of entertainment changed, as the winter issue of the Wilson Quarterly reminds readers, and once-doubting preachers "Gradually perceived that they [sports] might be rescued and cleaned up in the service of the Lord."

Indeed, the evolution of sports and their current endangered status amid the influence of money, labor disputes, performance-enhancing drugs and a celebrity-craving culture, are the subjects of essays in the highbrow but accessible publication.

The pieces by literary critic Wilfrid Sheed, Princeton University geologist Edward Tenner, Germanic languages expert John Hoberman and American studies professor Allen Guttmann all in some way address the cover's query, "Can the Joy of Sports Be Saved?"

The best is from Mr. Sheed, who concedes that sports have taken on an all-too-ambiguous life of their own. He touches many bases (excuse the metaphor), including what amounts to the professionalization of college sports. Unavoidably, he writes ruefully, big-time college athletics create the very sort of on-campus class differences among students that colleges seek leave at the front gate.

There's no such thing, he contends, as moderation when a university signs on to a big-time sports program. You must either grow helplessly or "pull the plug," as he praises the University of Chicago for doing 50 years ago when it inspired national headlines by leaving the Big 10. "The lonely grandeur of that gesture tells you how unreal it would be to expect many more of them."

Underscoring that point, he notes how sports, their democratic reputation aside, can serve to merely harden class distinctions. The class resentments that many analysts contend underlie British soccer hooliganism are ample, if sad, evidence.

Mr. Sheed strays from hard conclusions, finding sports less a force for good than just a force, "more like a kitchen window flung up on the present."

That window allows us to view, for example, how old ideas of modest, gentlemanly sportsmanship are now challenged, as exemplified by the on-the-field theatrics of a star athlete like baseball and football's Deion Sanders. "Even team sports have become vehicles for self-assertion and promotion. At times everyone out there seems to be selling himself, as indeed many of them have been since grammar school."

"The figure of an ingratiating megalomaniac is a far cry from the 19th-century ideal of sports, or from the reasons we play games in the first place. He, or she, is also something of a caricature, and a warning."

But it may be some consolation that "The fact that we still have socomparatively few of such megalomaniacs is a tribute to the innate healthiness of sports under the incredible pressures of a celebrity culture." (Available for $6 via Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 901 D St. S.W., Suite 704, Washington, D.C. 20024.)

Briefly noted

The billion-dollar gamble -- and loss -- of futures trader Nick Leeson gets lucid and informative treatment (though at times smacking of amateur psychology) in the March 13 Time and Newsweek ("Since he got out of high school he had been like a kid pressing his nose against a window, watching a party to which he wasn't invited," Newsweek writes).

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