3 The meanings of sport: narratives and heroes
3.1 Shining examples
Sport, it should be clear by now, has a symbiotic relationship with the media. Newspapers, radio and television have enlarged the audience for sports and greatly enriched the enjoyment that can be gained from following sport. Sport provides the media with copy and content along with readers, viewers and customers. Why does sport provide such good content and in such quantities for every sort of media? What is the public getting and what is it that the public likes? Sport provides many pleasures and may fulfil many needs, but perhaps the two most important are its capacity to create a diverse array of meaningful stories and a range of sporting characters, heroes, villains, celebrities and fools. These in turn provide compelling content for the news stories, magazines, television shows and websites that make up the media of contemporary popular culture. Which stories we pick up, which heroes we value and why will vary across and within societies, and the media are central to the selection of them and the shaping our understanding of these sports stories.
Some of these arguments have been explored by Michael Mandelbaum in his book The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do (2004). Mandelbaum explores the US devotion to these three sports, which he links to different stages of the nation's development; baseball with the agrarian past, football as the model of the industrial age and basketball as post-industrial. For our purposes, what is most relevant about his argument is the way he addresses the question of why Americans are so keen on these three sports – what makes them so popular and important? First, Mandelbaum argues that baseball, football and basketball resemble the ancient literary form of the epic, in which heroic protagonists overcome a series of challenges in order to accomplish their ultimate goal. Second, he suggests that these sports are attractive because they are coherent; they make life intelligible and comprehensible. In modern life such sports also provide a haven of security amidst the confusion and insecurity of the post-industrial world. Each sport:
is a model of coherence for two reasons. Each is transparent: spectators can see for themselves what is happening and why. And each is definitive. At the end of each game, the spectators and the participants know which side has won. While the news section of the daily newspaper may report the baffling and the unintelligible, the sports section features succinct histories that everyone can understand, with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end.
(Mandelbaum, 2004, p. 8)
Mandelbaum argues that not only does contemporary sport play a significant role in modern societies by providing coherent stories, with clearly defined beginning, middle and end, but also sport provides ‘shining examples’ (Mandelbaum, 2004, p. 10) of stars who are celebrities, heroes and role models in an activity that is much more than entertainment, because sports women and men really do what the spectators see them doing.
Interest in movie and sports stars goes beyond their performances on the screen and in the arena. Newspaper columns, specialized magazines, television programs, and Web sites record the personal lives of celebrated Hollywood actors, sometimes accurately. The doings of skilled baseball, football, and basketball players out of uniform similarly attract public attention. Both industries actively promote such attention, which expands audiences and thus increases revenues. But a fundamental difference divides them: What sports stars do for a living is authentic in a way that what movie stars do is not.
(Mandelbaum, 2004, p. 10)
He quotes the baseball star Sandy Koufax as saying ‘I don't think ballplayers are really entertainers … The customers come to hear the entertainers perform; they come to watch us live a part of our lives’ (quoted in Mandelbaum, 2004, p. 11).
One sports star who has crossed not only the Atlantic but also the boundaries of sport, entertainment and popular culture is David Beckham (Figure 1), former England men's football (soccer) captain, partner of a pop singer, fashion icon, role model and, at the time of writing, player at LA Galaxy (where, even though a superstar, he may feel he benefits from association with another such figure by sporting Michael Jordan's number 23 on his shorts).
Whatever his celebrity status and star rating in the terrain of popular culture, Beckham is more than an entertainer, because his sporting talent is the source of his heroic status. Sports stars often carry heroic status and are a source of ‘admiration and emulation’ (Mandelbaum, 2004, p. 11).
In some senses, Mandelbaum presents a rather simplistic argument about sport and its stars. Other commentators distinguish between celebrity and heroism within the field of sport, demonstrating the difference between sporting celebrities and sporting heroes.
Mike Marqusee uses the examples of the basketball player Michael Jordan and the boxer Muhammad Ali to make this point (Figures 2 and 3). Jordan is famous, first, for making more money out of sports than any other athlete in history and, second, for his association with the Nike corporation:
The America of which he is a symbol is corporate America and its winner-takes-all-ethic. His blackness has been deliberately submerged within his Americanness, which is reduced, in the end, to his individual wealth and success.
There is … no way we can emulate Michael Jordan … In contrast, we can all emulate at least some of what Ali did outside the ring … the adherence to conscience in defiance of social pressure, the expression of self through a commitment to a higher cause and a wider community. It was the willingness of the Greatest to link his destiny with the least and the littlest that won him the devotion of so many.
(Marqusee, 2005, pp. 295–7)
Although Mandelbaum asserts that narrative and coherence, and the status of heroes and role models, provide us with some ideas through which to understand the popularity of sport and the popularity of media coverage of sport, he has not provided many tools for thinking about how the media actively chooses, shapes and interprets sport, and how we as readers and viewers, in turn, interpret and accept or reject the telling of the tale.
Use the internet to search for three more contemporary sports stories. Take a look at these current stories and ask yourself why they have become stories; what kind of narratives or icons do they depict and in what way?