Monday, November 23, 2009

The Most Conservative Sport?

Essayist Chuck Klosterman writes about popular culture as a music critic and sometimes-sports commentator. In a recent article for ESPN, he writes about why he is a football fan. The gist of Klosterman's argument is that football is a sport with an amazing slight-of-hand : it passes itself off as a conservative sport in terms of its values but is actually the most liberal sport in terms of game innovation. As a socially conservative sport, it will always appeal to those who believe in paternalism and macho toughness - as well as what he calls a "reactionary" sports media. (*) However, as Klosterman puts it:

What the NFL has realized is that they have no better marketing tool than the game itself. Every other sport tries to fool us. Baseball sells itself as some kind of timeless, historical pastime that acts as the bridge to a better era of American life, an argument that now seems beyond preposterous. The NBA tries to create synergy with anything that might engage youth culture (hip-hop, abstract primordial competition, nostalgia for the 1980s, the word "amazing," Hurricane Katrina, etc.). NASCAR connects itself to red state contrarianism. Soccer aligns itself with forward-thinking globalists who enjoy fandom more than sports. But football only uses football. They are the product they sell. Unlike David Stern's failed vision for the NBA, the NFL Network does not try to expand its empire by pushing the sport toward nonchalant audiences with transitory interest; it never tries to trick anybody into watching something they don't already like.

Later on, Klosterman answers the question about why he thinks football is so compelling - why someone might like football, as opposed to something else. The important point, however, is that other sports attempt to sell something other than the game itself - nostalgia or some form of social contrarianism. Since the NFL only sells the game, as it were, the game is endlessly reinvented and tinkered with. If the schedule has to be expanded, why not? Instant replay? Why not? Radios in helmets? Why not? (**)

Despite the high-quality writing, what I found most appealing about Klosterman's essay was the dichotomy between the presentation and the actuality: football presents itself as conservative but is highly innovative. You could apply this dichotomy to other sports:


Football - conservative presentation, liberal actuality
Baseball - conservative presentation, conservative actuality
NBA Basketball - liberal presentation, slightly conservative actuality
Soccer - liberal presentation (in the United States), conservative actuality

Unfortunately, this implies that football and baseball are exactly conservative in the same way. Maybe we should use a continuum and give football a "10" on conservative presentation and baseball an "8".

Baseball is a little bit less conservative than football in its presentation - how could a sport that has figures like Jackie Robinson and Bill Lee be truly conservative? - but in terms of the rules it is very conservative. The fundamental rules are to be left untouched; interleague play caused a firestorm and they're still arguing about the designated hitter 30 years later.

Basketball would only get a "4" or a "5" on the presentation scale for conservatism. The sport has two contending social groups, those that think that Bob Cousy is the bee's knees and those that think that LeBron is Da Bomb. In terms of a sport, it hasn't changed that much at all. The 3-pointer is the only major innovation in several years in basketball. (***)

Soccer - in the United States anyway - is seen as a sport that threatens the long-standing reactionary order of sports and would probably get a "2 or 3" on the conservatism scale. In terms of the rules, however, the sport would get a hard "9" or maybe even a "10". I can't think of a major soccer rule change since the Dane's head was first kicked across a field in England.

The above led to wonder where women's basketball fits into these scheme. I came to a startling conclusion. Namely, that the WNBA is sort of the "anti-NFL". The NFL presents itself as a conservative sport but is actually a liberal one; the WNBA presents itself as a liberal sport, but might be the most conservative form of basketball there is.

In terms of the WNBA's presentation, it would be hard to think of a sport with a more liberal consciousness. The WNBA can't seem to decide whether to sell the game itself, or to sell "sisterhood is powerful" - so it sells both. The first campaign for the WNBA was "We Got Next" - "we" being "women" in this case - so in the very first ad campaigns, it wasn't so much the game being sold as the fact that women were playing it. Note that it's not the the NBAW but the WNBA - "women" comes before "basketball".

The sport has an active lesbian fanbase and in terms of the major sports, the individual teams probably do more to recognize their gay fanbase than just about any other sport. (Yes, it's a pitiful job, but when compared to the four major sports the WNBA is almost a consciousness-raising group.) The criticism from the reactionary sports media is that the WNBA - and its fans - are freaks, either too mannish or not mannish enough, choosing whichever cudgel they believe will draw the most blood.

However, the sport itself is very conservative, more conservative that football pretends to be. Hell, the WNBA is more conservative than the NBA! The WNBA doesn't have that weird charge arc in the lane. They haven't adapted the "three steps and dunk" traveling rule that the NBA is so eager to try out. For such liberal thinkers, the WNBA's hard core fans are martinet purists when it comes to their sport. Very few of the dimensions of the women's game are scaled down from the men's game. Maybe the 3-point arc is tweaked a little bit but the same court markings are there. The only major concession is the smaller ball, and some fans don't even like that much change.

There have been calls from sources to perhaps lower the size of the rim a few inches or to shrink the size of the court. Most of those calls have come from those who don't follow the sport. (****) These calls are almost unanimously rejected. There are two reasons why these arguments are rejected. The first is that women's basketball fans want the game not be dominated by athleticism and height, and lowering the rims would tilt the game in that direction. The second is that historically authorities have changed the rules of women's basketball in order to marginalize women's sports. As a result, many women want the game to be as much like the men's game as much as possible.

The problem is that the WNBA is very much like the men's game - the men's game of 1957, before the height of the players had caught up to the dimensions of the court. Furthermore, even though shrinking the size of the court would increasing scoring and not really change the passing game so beloved by WNBA fans, fans want the WNBA's court to remain the size of the men's. (*****)

All right. There are valid arguments for not lowering the rim. There might even be valid arguments for not changing the size of the court. But the reactionary attitude of the WNBA fans to any tinkering at all begs the question: would any change to the WNBA game be welcomed? Is the WNBA going to be like baseball, with its purists fighting off any suggested changes with a flurry of "yes-buts"? It seems that the only criticisms that the WNBA will accepts are ones from "within the academy" so to speak. After all, even your worst enemies might have some good ideas.

Maybe this explains why I like the WNBA so much. What was the sport I was following before I started following the WNBA? Baseball. Maybe, despite my attraction to what I think of as social liberalism, I have a longing for conservative sports.


(*) - There is a ton of discussion - on this blog and others - as to why the WNBA is so slow to gain acceptance in the old media. Maybe the explanation is that "the gatekeepers in traditional sports are reactionary sexist pigs". Frankly, the explanation might need be no more complex than that.

(**) - However, there is something lost in liberalizing the rules of your sport - rule changes and tweaks make it much harder to compare players across eras. It's very easy to compare players across eras in baseball; it's much harder in football.

(***) - The impact of the new charge arc and traveling rules is yet to be seen.

(****) - It appears, unfortunately, that most critics of women's basketball come from the reactionary douchebag school. They'll come up with two or three ideas that might be worth considering, and then torpedo their entire effort with something like "and the players should also all play in lingerie". It's like they have a cognitive version of Tourette's Syndrome.

(*****) - A lot of the arguments that fans use to defend the rules of women's basketball come from cost effectiveness - "We can't change Rule X/Equipment Y because it would be too expensive." The initial arguments against the smaller ball came from the perspective of the bean counter, that it would cothat it would be an unfair costs to high schools and colleges who would now have to purchase separate balls for the women. It's sort of a conservative argument if you think about it.

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