Finding a Medium

Some of you may have familiarity with the show “Hoarders.” In each episode a person who has collected way too much stuff has an intervention team come and try and get them to get rid of stuff and reclaim sanity in their lives. I avoid shows like this but others in my family occasionally dabble, so I have a mild familiarity with it. I have always assumed that such people had a kind of emotional or social block of sorts. But I think differently after listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History episode on art galleries.

In part of the episode he interviews people who knew famous hoarders, and they revealed that, in fact, the hoarders had an exceedingly heightened emotional connection with their possessions (this makes sense, I should have recognized this before). Each item was connected with an intense memory, and they needed the object to connect to that memory. For them, no object=no memory, which meant a loss of self identity.

It struck me that the real issue with hoarders involved not just a crass materialism, but more fundamentally, their inability to rightly “symbolize” their experience. We tend to think of symbols as stand-in’s for reality, as something less than real. But actually symbols are a form of heightened reality, a concentrated reality, akin to myths or folklore. Most of us do keep some things from our past. But we concentrate a diffuse set of memories into one object, i.e., this shell unlocks our beach memories, or this hat accesses my experience with my grandfather. We don’t need 30 shells and 17 hats to do this.

But not just any object can serve as a symbol. As forms of heightened reality, symbols have to unlock complexity. A proper symbol will have many layers, like an onion. In turn, this helps explain why religions utilize so many symbols. In his episode about art galleries, Gladwell compared hoarders to dragons of western folklore. Dragons collect treasure not to spend it but simply to have. They live in caves, and their absolute focus on wealth shows them as overtly and dangerously “of the earth.” Dragons have a chaotic biology and function–they bring chaos wherever they go. Their exclusively earthly mindset essentially means that they cannot symbolize.

Most every religion has holy mountains in its sacred texts or myth. We probably assume this is because that mountains exude awe and power. But mountains in their physical structure also represent the one and the many. At the bottom is breadth and the ‘individuality’ of things. As we move up the mountain, our experience become more “concentrated,” and of course the summit brings unity to our experience.

Someone too earthly focused will stay on the bottom of the mountain, seeing only one thing after another thing, after another–a form of chaos. Reside only on the peak and you miss the individuality of things and can hyper-focus on their unity.

Be that as it may, when we see symbolism on a grand scale we should assume that we observe a religious activity.

Currently we witness a plethora of symbolic activity, from sloganeering to mask wearing/not mask wearing. It is no surprise that a great deal of this symbolism has seeped into sports. Sports have always had ritual elements involved, but it seems that such ritualization has ballooned over the last few years, especially in the NBA and perhaps in the NFL. Of course there are the pre-game rituals athletes and fans engage in. The post-game press conference ritual is another. But now, even entering the arena from the bus, the slow saunter down the hall, has taken on the weight of ritual, as athletes seek to market themselves, the products they endorse, their kids, or what have you.

To me, a breaking point surely seems near.

Let us take the question of the national anthem. What has a collective expression of patriotism have to do with sports? The fact that many of us feel some need to do this goes beyond societal conditioning. I think we subconsciously realize that we are engaging in a collective ritual and know that it needs solemnized. With this in mind, a few theories emerge:

Theory 1

It is good and right that we ritualize sports and solemnize sports with the anthem. Obviously we are a pluralistic country and so we are not going to sing a hymn. But, we can sing the national ‘hymn’/anthem. This brings us together, unifying the home team and the “enemy”/away team with the crowd. The spectacle then belongs to all of us. Players have an obligation, as the enactors of the ritual, to stand at attention at least.

In church, for example, not everyone in the congregation will sing along. Some may stand silently, some will look at their phones. But what would happen to the church if instead of singing along, the pastor looked at his phone, or . . . protested the singing of the song. That church could not last long. So . . . athletes, this is your chosen profession, and the duty of respecting the ritual comes with it.

Theory 2

Mark Cuban defended players kneeling for the anthem recently by asking a fan, “How would you like it if they played the anthem every day that you came to work?”–a thoughtful rebuke. For, of course, we wouldn’t like it at all. Such repetition would feel oppressive. Athletes should maintain their individuality and have the same rights as anyone else, which includes freedom of speech. If we force them to engage in the ritual, we must also allow them all of their rights under the Constitution to protest the government, a particular law, or anything else they wish.

The problem with Theory 1 is that it inveighs sports and the athletes with a symbolic weight that they cannot carry. Theory 1 attitudes will bring about Theory 2 behavior as a natural reaction. The players at some point rightly rebel under the burden. The Problem with Theory 2 is that it sets up an oppositional relationship with those that make their lives possible, with the fans that “pay their salaries.” Neither theory can sustain itself for long. So, I offer

Theory 3

I argue that we rightly attach important rituals to sports, but that we have gone too far with them, and that players, fans, and media alike share the blame. Player salaries, lifestyle, and the powerful voice that comes with fame and fortune cannot happen without media and fans. Yet, nearly every media duty is onerous and pointless. Reporters usually ask dumb questions, and when they ask good ones, players fear speaking honestly, knowing that their every word will be dissected by millions. Yet much of the money leagues make comes from media rights. You can’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Fans can create impossible standards for athletes. We want the bland media rituals perfectly enacted. Athletes look like they have fun playing the game, as they should. Who ever had fun at a press conference? Fans will also damage the souls of athletes by completely overlooking anything and everything–their behavior and education, to pick two examples–provided that they can beautifully enact on the field rituals of play.

Many athletes, perhaps especially in the NBA, go to great lengths, however, to create cardboard images of cool, and to thereby become a kind of Greek god, whose power, both cultural and physical, is worshipped. Then, they turn on those that worship them. Fans are understandably confused, for many players seek outsized attention, then spurn the peons who give it.

But the solution is not to remove rituals from sports. Athletics precede drama historically, but when drama started with the Greeks, it emerged from Dionysian worship. The “ecstasy” associated with acting and the stage–the “out of body” experience–is akin to a great athlete transcending normal physical limitations. Perhaps this is why we give god-like attention both movie and sports stars. There is indeed a communal beauty involved in most sports, but this needs translated via ritual for communal consumption. Confuse the ritual, and something will indeed be lost in translation.

But this beauty, because of its transcendence, cannot be confined to the purely national. And though we long to worship beauty, we have to inject levity back into sports to put them into proper perspective again. So I propose (finally–sorry for the very long prologue!) the following:

  • The national anthem will not be played before sporting events. Rather, a team song (akin to a fight song for high schools and colleges) can be played when the team takes the field. If you don’t have a fight song for your team–time to get one.
  • Post- game press conferences will no longer be mandatory. If an athlete wants to participate, great, but no fines for those that don’t want to.
  • Athletes need to live in the town of the team they play for. They need to be seen by the communities that support them. This used to be the case more or less everywhere, and I think this is healthy for all sides. If people know the athletes as normal people, the athletes may feel less need to fight back against the weight of their symbolic identity.

The first suggestion could be easily implemented. The second would be a bit harder, the third should not be enforced, obviously. Restructuring sports media would likely make profits and salaries decrease slightly. Sure, things would change, but the change would allow us to remain the same.

A friend of mine in the telecommunications field in a recent conversation talked about the priority of their company. Amidst changing consumer demands, changing cultural priorities, and so forth, the number one goal is always to maintain the reliability of their network platform. Without that, nothing else really matters because nothing else could take place without a reliable network. Let athletes say whatever they would like on their own time, he argued, but don’t tamper with the rituals that give you the prominence to spread your ideas. I think our sports culture, from owners down to the casual fan, needs to come up with a way to maintain a viable baseline platform of connection to fans. That might involve risk to players in the COVID era, changing expectations from fans and media, and possibly, as suggested above, introducing slightly new rituals.

All of this might restore a new normal and a proper symbolism associated with sports, the “medium” we seek.

I have spoken of sports here, but teachers–my profession–are playing the same dangerous game as sports leagues. In ‘Teacher Mythology’ you find phrases such as “It’s all about the students,” “Going all-out for a better future for the students,” etc. Some of this is gooey nonsense, some of it has a semblance of truth. Teachers are not wealthy but they enjoy a general sense of respect in the community for their profession–a respect based on shared trust in this mythology.

With many public sector teacher unions declaring that they will only teach online (this is not true of many private schools), they greatly endanger this mythology. Certainly some teachers may be at genuine risk, but this should be dealt with separately. All of the evidence suggests that kids need to be at school. By focusing exclusively on their physical well-being and refusing to take reasonable risks for their students, public school teachers rapidly dismantle the pedestal upon which they stand.

My advice to athletes and teachers alike–you can stand on the mountain peak, but don’t forget that underneath you lies tons of rock.