“A sensible person does not read a novel as a task. He reads it as a diversion. He is prepared to interest himself in the characters and is concerned to see how they act in given circumstances, and what happens to them; he sympathizes with their troubles and is gladdened by their joys; he puts himself in their place and, to an extent, lives their lives . . . ”
—W. Somerset Maugham
The British playwright and novelist William Somerset Maugham, a literary giant in league with Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, Thomas Mann and William Faulkner, is not known to have been a sports fan. Though, he once wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated—the introduction of Charles Goren as the magazine’s bridge columnist, in its inaugural issue.
But Maugham’s commentary about readers of fiction could easily be adapted to refer to those who live and die with their favorite sports teams, or at least attend their games and occasionally cheer for a particular player or recognize a good play. Alas:
“A sports fan does not watch a game as a task. He (and she) follows it as a diversion. He (and she) is prepared to interest himself (and herself) in the players and the play, and is concerned to see how they act in given circumstances, and what happens to them and their team in the end. He (and she) is entertained by their successes, sympathizes with their failures and, while focused on the game before them, escapes the frustrations of daily life and the aggravations of politics today . . .”
Oh, if only that were still so. But, sadly, even Sports has been corrupted, our diversion diminished.
No longer can we turn to baseball, football or basketball games—or most other athletic contests—and be confident that we can forget about, or briefly find relief from, differing opinions about Covid 19, masks and vaccinations, defense of critical race theory, debates over election integrity, the southern border crisis and illegal immigration, systemic racism, Big Tech’s abuses, gun control, increasing crime, defunding the police or “mostly peaceful” protests that destroy millions of dollars’ worth of private property.
The National Football League, for example, recently announced that its games this fall would be preceded by not only The Star-Spangled Banner but also the black national anthem. (Raise your hand if you can sing along without seeing the lyrics.)
During its pandemic-induced “Playoffs Bubble” in Florida, the National Basketball Association adorned players’ jerseys with catchwords such as “Liberty,” “Equality” and “Peace” above their numbers, rather than their names. (Raise your hand if you know all the players so well you didn’t miss having help identifying them.)
Many college teams also opted for nameless basketball jerseys, last season. (Raise your hand if you’re so familiar with the players on even your favorite team that you knew them all anyway.)
Not to be outdone, Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta to—as you know—Denver, a reaction to perceived restrictions in Georgia voting law.
These all followed the ground-breaking stance the NBA took when it sided with the repressive leaders of China on the subject of social media commentary by a front office executive of an NBA team who had the temerity to be critical of Chinese policies.
And, of course, we have numerous athletes, most notably LeBron James, who feel their opinions on social issues, political candidates and U.S. history matter at least as much as those expressed by performers in the entertainment industry. (Actually, they do: not at all.)
Not even tennis, gymnastics nor cycling is immune from partisan discourse. And the Olympic Games, always susceptible to political statements, are now the grandest pandemic stage and woke pulpit of all.
And this just in: The Cleveland Indians, beginning next season, will be the Cleveland . . . GUARDIANS! (To borrow a Native American expression: UGH.) In the NFL, meanwhile, the Washington team remains nickname-less but promises a politically acceptable moniker soon.
So, what’s a sports fan—or anyone seeking respite from culture wars or everyday politics—to do?
Well, golf seems to remain a bastion of diversion (though with plenty of aggravation and frustration if you’re playing rather than watching), as is ice hockey (if you can tolerate the fighting). I was going to include soccer, but then the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team decided to kneel before its Olympics opener versus Sweden (which it eventually lost 3-0). More Ugh!, as far as I’m concerned.
One man I know has taken to watching games with the sound turned off. If that’s more than you can tolerate, I suggest—returning to the adaptation of Mr. Maugham, if I may—emphasizing one’s focus.
Tune out all the grandstanding and theatrics, and concentrate on whether or not your chosen team or favorite player entertains you with his or her or its performance on the field, court or whatever the particular setting for competition is called.
Mike Singletary, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who starred for the Chicago Bears back when all sports was still a diversion, said it well:
Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to PLAY.
Fans, change that last word to ESCAPE.
Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at email@example.com.