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The Metamorphosis of the Sportsman

How did we go from rugged players to rabid consumers?

“The dictators have discovered sport. This was inevitable.”

So wrote John Roberts Tunis in the July 1936 issue of Foreign Affairs,on the eve of the 11th modern Olympic Games. This was no ordinary Olympics, and Tunis was no ordinary sportswriter.

Berlin hosted the 1936 Games — three years after Adolf Hitler came to power, and just as the world was awakening to the full ramifications of the Nazi agenda. Tunis, a Harvard University-educated intellectual, was a popular sportscaster and commentator (as well as an author of several sports novels for young adults) who viewed the emerging institution of professional sports as fertile ground for our most base impulses.

In his 1936 analysis of sports and authoritarian regimes for Foreign Affairs, Tunis wrote:

The hope of the dictators … [is] to win over youth to [their] new conception of life, the new system. They found that they could best succeed through sport. From being a simple source of amusement and recreation, it became a means to an end, a weapon…. It became nationalistic. The ideal of sport for sport’s sake became an object of ridicule.

Democratic societies, Tunis conceded, had not co-opted sports for nearly such sinister purposes. But, he argued, the commercialization of sport in America — a fraction of the industry then as it is in its current form — was also a threat to the well-being of the nation. Tunis saw the advent of sports as a profession as the downfall of sports as recreation, and with that downfall came the social, psychological, and physical benefits that it offered.

He was quite the prophet.

A real sportsman, Tunis wrote in a 1928 article for Harper’s, plays “not for championships, for titles, for cash, for publicity, or for applause, but simply for the love of the game.” Everyone who has sunk a three-pointer in a neighborhood pick-up game, spiked a volleyball over the net on a sun-drenched beach, bombed a forested slope on their mountain bike, “knows the thrill of real sport … [and] that complete and satisfying relaxation of mind and body which to the work-weary brain is such a perfect solace.” Then comes the indictment:

But of late years a curious fiction appears to have grown up throughout the nation regarding sport. For this fiction the sporting writers of the big city dailies are very largely responsible; in their altogether human effort to glorify their trade they have preached unceasingly that all the values to be found in informal athletic meetings are present also in these huge organized sporting spectacles. All competitive sport, so they tell us, is health-giving, character-building, brain-making. Its exponents are young heroes possessing the best and none but the best of qualities; they are tempered and sealed by the white heat of competition, purified and made holy by their devotion to sport. Thanks to these gentry who pursue with such zeal our modern pastimes for the daily press, there has grown up in the public mind an exaggerated and sentimental notion of the moral value of these great competitive spectacles of sport, a fiction which may be termed The Great Sports Myth.

Tunis’ career coincided with the earliest television broadcasts of sporting events, the technological catalyst for the rugged sportsman’s metamorphosis into the pot-bellied fan. While Sports Fan is an identity claimed by 60 percent of Americans, Sports Man is becoming an increasingly endangered species: Only 20 percent of Americans get the 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week that the federal government recommends. Sports Fan, however, spends about eight hours each week “consuming sports.”

Is the rise of sports consumerism to blame for the downfall of active participation in sports? Correlation does not provide sufficient proof for causation in this case; but then again, there are only so many hours in the day.

Longitudinal studies on exercise and obesity only began in the 1960s, after we started to notice something was awry. These show that obesity rates have more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents since the late 1970s. Limited earlier data, mostly from the military, suggests the average weight of Americans coming of age at the turn of the 20th century was about 15 pounds less than in the following generation. So Tunis was on to something long before the words “obesity” and “epidemic” were so often conjoined.

The sociologist Harry Edwards, who pioneered the sub-discipline “sociology of sport” in the late 1960s, recently told me about a lecture he gave to a group of male junior high school students, who he’d polled about their participation in sports. When asked how many played football, every hand went up. But further prodding revealed just one guy who actually played the game — the rest admitted they only played Madden, the football video game. That’s a far cry from his own childhood in post-war East St. Louis, where the vast majority of kids his age (boys, anyway) were “out there on the sandlot at every opportunity throwing the football around.”

“When you have a society where video game football can literally displace active involvement in the game at a young age, you can look for that to be reflected as cohorts move up the age scale,” Edwards says. “They move from playing video games to putting together their fantasy team. They still follow the games and have an emotional investment in the games, but they are not participating in the games.”

A 2008 study found that just 8 percent of adolescents reported at least 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week; yet 42 percent of high school students use computers and video games for recreation for three or more hours on average each school day, according to a 2013 study. Meanwhile, one-third of children and teenagers (ages two to 19) are obese. The National Physical Activity Plan Alliance gives Americans a D- in overall physical activity. One could go on with such facts and statements. But there are other deficiencies to consider in a world where Sports Man, and more recently Sports Woman, have undergone a Kafka-esque transformation into the androgynous, adulating — and utterly sedentary — Sports Fan.

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It would be unfair to blame our collective deficiency in physical activity, or any other ills of society, on the wildly successful sports industry — which in North America boasts an annual revenue of around $65 billion, and has grown at a rate of more than 5 percent annually in recent years. But given that our collective waistlines seem to grow at a similar annual rate — and that the median budget for physical education in American schools is just $764 per school per year — a shift in priorities is in order.

Proponents of professional sports often claim the investment made in them — say, hosting a major sports event, or attracting a new major league franchise to one’s city — trickles down to encourage greater overall levels of sports participation, but data generally does not support that theory. In reality, investments in stadiums and other sports-related infrastructure consistently show poor returns in terms of job creation and economic stimulation, effectively becoming a tax on the host community.

Ever since the 1976 Montreal Olympics, which was projected to cost $120 million, but ultimately cost the city over $3 billion, the idea that mega-sports events are good for the local economy has been almost completely debunked. Post-Montreal, the average cost overrun for putting on the Olympic Games is north of 200 percent. As the American sports economist Andrew Zimbalist notes in his 2015 book Circus Maximus, far fewer cities even compete to host the games anymore — and those that do are increasingly located in countries with autocratic regimes, reflecting their desire to project legitimacy onto the world stage. Only two cities vied for the 2022 Winter Olympics: Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan.

While Sports Fan is an identity claimed by 60 percent of Americans, Sports Man is becoming an increasingly endangered species.

In the process of competing to host mega-sporting events, candidate cities promise all sorts of impossible things to their citizens. Brazil — which spent billions of dollars on stadiums for the 2014 World Cup that have scarcely been used since, and now faces the embarrassment of Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay, where sailors and rowers competed amid raw sewage, municipal garbage, and the occasional corpse — is the most recent (and epic) case in point. In July, less than two months before the opening ceremony, the governor of Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of financial calamity”; hospital staff and other government employees were told that they may be suspended or could choose to work without pay indefinitely.

As part of their proposal to the International Olympic Committee, host countries typically develop programs intended to leverage the Games to improve youth participation in sports; what actually happens once the games are awarded is another matter. Brazil had a national program to that effect in place when they were awarded the games in 2009, stipulating that funding be allocated equally to professional sports development and community sports programs, including youth sports. According to an analysis of federal funding for sports in Brazil from 2004 to 2009, however, money flowed “disproportionately to elite training and support for mega-events, despite constitutional guidelines to the contrary.”

Jay Coakley, an American sports sociologist who assisted with the analysis, said the intent was to use the data as a baseline for a longitudinal study that would track sports spending from the 2009 through 2014 World Cups, the 2016 Olympics, and beyond in order to gauge the success of these mega-events in leveraging overall sports participation. He says the Brazilian sports ministry pledged to cooperate with, and even help fund, the study at the outset, but withdrew support after a series of leadership changes tied to the corruption scandals unfolding in the government at the time.

In Brazil, and elsewhere, there is a tendency to view professional sports as the ultimate motivator for youth participation in sports — we all want to grow up to be just like Pelé or Kobe Bryant, right? But investments in programs to nurture top-tier talent is ultimately about breeding the next crop of superstars that will keep sports consumerism alive and well; that doesn’t necessarily trickle down to encourage the average kid to get outside and have a good time playing games with their friends.

And there is evidence encouraging youth to specialize in a single sport — long seen as a means to produce top-tier athletes — leads to lower sports participation overall. Seventy percent of American kids drop out of organized sports by the age of 13, largely because it’s not fun anymore, whether due to pressure from the coach or lingering injuries. “Having fun” is consistently ranked as the top reason kids play sports; a 2011 poll of children ages eight to 17 who play sports found that 86 percent rank having fun as “really important” in athletics, while “winning” was ranked 13th on the list at 37 percent.

“The new sport minister said we would have to drop our concern with sport for all and education sport, and just focus on elite sport and the development of sport talent in Brazil,” Coakley says. “That’s not a study that we wanted to do — I’ve never been too keen on studying how to win Olympic medals.” The sports minister, it turned out, had been lobbied by Brazil’s powerful soccer training academies to turn a shoulder to the meddling academics.

The experience was so jarring to Coakley that he revived Tunis’ notion of the Great Sport Myth and began to promote it as a foundational theory in the sociology of sports. In a 2015 article for the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Coakley defines the Great Sport Myth in four broad points: “[S]port is inherently pure and good; the purity and goodness of sport is transmitted to those who play or consume it; and sport inevitably leads to individual and community development; [thus] there is no need to study and analyze sport critically, because it is already as it should be.”

Coakley’s most recent endeavors include lobbying to reform the Fédération Internationale de Football Association and International Olympic Committee host city selection process to become better grounded in the needs of local communities, using the recent debacles in Brazil as ammunition. But he’s found that there are intrinsic barriers in communicating the problem. Those that operate within the world of professional sports are eager to discuss changes and improvements to the system — as long as the changes do not undermine the glory of the games.

Tunis, who loved sports but was at odds with much of the sporting world around him, felt the same push back nearly a century ago. “It seems to me that far from building character, continuous and excessive participation in competitive sport tends to destroy it,” he wrote in 1928. “Under the terrific stress of striving for victory, victory, victory, unpleasant traits of all sorts are brought out. The players worst side is too frequently magnified; his self-control is broken down more often than it is built up. I know this is heresy. I realize that the opposite is preached at us from every side.”

Professional sports are not going away. To revere them as holy entities, immune to critique, is to sacrifice the soul of the game.