Rhetoric and Writing in the Public Sphere: An Introduction/Chapter 9: Sports in the Public Sphere
Sports and their role in American society has become increasingly controversial with the ballooning salaries of players and the exponential growth of television network contracts. Take Albert Pujols’ new $254 million/10 year contract with the Angels, or the team’s new $3 billion television agreement with Fox Sports West as examples of unnecessary spending in sports (ESPN). Neil Postman, a media theorist and author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, would consider sports to be nothing but a distraction that merely entertains and cannot inform or unite. But naysayers, like Postman, often overlook the positive impact that sports have had on society. Look no further than September 21st, 2001, when the Mets restarted the baseball season by playing the first game since the league suspended play after the World Trade Center collapse. Or the New Orleans Saints who won the 2009 Super Bowl, and returned normalcy to a city, and stadium, rocked by Hurricane Katrina just a few years before. I consider sports to be the world’s rawest reality show which lets fans connect with a team or player in ways that they can’t with political parties or movie stars. We live and die with our team’s success and it’s this connection that makes sports a vital piece in the public sphere.
The Mets and 9/11
September 11th, 2001, is forever a day of infamy in American history. It seemed like the entire nation was frozen for a week, in awe and disbelief of what just happened and for ten days, the professional baseball season was put on hold by commissioner Bud Selig. The New York Mets would have the honor of re-opening the 2001 season by hosting their bitter rival Atlanta Braves on the 21st of September. Johnny Franco, closer for the Mets at the time, said it best: “Nobody knew what the right time was, or if it was the right time to come back" (MLB.com). The Mets took the field donning FDNY caps and patches. The opening ceremonies were touching, and chants of “U-S-A” could be heard from the stands. However, fans at the game described the moment as confusing. They felt odd cheering and giving their all for something as meaningless as a baseball game, after something so much bigger had just shook America. Yet, as the soon-to-be-hero Mike Piazza, later stated, there was something necessary about it: “People wanted to find refuge in baseball: in a crowd and around other people" (MLB.com). In the 8th inning of a 2-1 game, Mike Piazza stepped up to the plate with a runner on first and one out with a chance to reclaim the lead. With one swing of the bat, Piazza was about to send Shea Stadium into a state of frenzy. Down 0-1 in the count, Piazza swung at a low fastball and belted it out of the park to left center, forever changing baseball history. The stadium erupted, and fans suddenly felt comfortable cheering. For the first time in ten days, New Yorkers had something to jump with joy about. It was as if Piazza’s homerun snapped New York out of its misery and returned it to a state of belief. Everything felt right, and hundreds of children who had lost parents and relatives to the attacks could laugh and scream with excitement. The game was something out of a Hollywood script, but so much better because it was real and tangible. No words of a politician, or declarations of war would fix the immediate pain felt by individuals touched by 9/11, but the Mets could. It’s amazing to think that one swing of a bat could pump life into a city that seemed dead just days before. Mets announcer Howie Rose put it simply: “Shea Stadium has something to smile about.” The building was waiting to explode all night, and they finally got their chance. To have strangers on your right and left high five you and hug you and jump with you was the medicine needed to bring comfort to New York. It gave business men something positive to talk about at the water cooler the next day, and it provided a moment that every person watching could reflect on and draw inspiration from.
The Saints and Hurricane Katrina
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a category five hurricane, rocked New Orleans and sent the city into chaos. Over 1,800 people were killed, and total property damage reached over $81 billion. So many places had been destroyed that people began seeking refuge in the Superdome, the stadium and home of the Saints football team. Images of citizens standing on their roofs screaming at military helicopters for help still plays in the minds of many Americans. President Bush’s embarrassing attempts at rescue only infuriated the city and drove them to extreme limits. In fact, Martial Law, a law stating that military force can be used on Americans, was about five minutes from being enacted, a situation that would have forever changed history. Luckily, the law was not put into effect and slowly, the city began to heal, yet again with the help of sports. In 2006, the Superdome was cleared out and given back to the New Orleans Saints. They reopened their stadium on Monday Night Football against Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons and a storybook three years was about to unfold. The sellout crowd packed the stadium and waved signs reading “Welcome Home Saints” and “Dome Sweet Dome.” After the Saints' defense forced a three and out on the first drive, the Falcons' special teams unit came out to punt the ball from around their own 30 yard line. Steve Gleason broke through the line and blocked Atlanta’s punt backwards; it was recovered by Curtis Deloatch who took several steps and dove clumsily into the end zone, which set the tone for the next few years. What was an abysmal team for years prior suddenly harnessed the angst and emotion of their city, put the people on their backs and carried them to happiness. For three years, the Saints scratched and clawed their way to better and better records, taking the pain and frustration of the city and using it as fuel for motivation to continue to grow as a team. It was a two-way connection between team and fans. The team drove the fans to keep fighting for their normalcy at home, while the fans drove the team to fight for wins on the field. Having something to look forward to each Sunday gave those who lost everything a chance to gain something once a week. When President Bush’s words couldn’t revive the city, the Saints did. Once again, political rhetoric wasn’t believable; it wasn’t tangible. Football games were more than entertainment; they were weekly doses of medicine prescribed to return joy and comfort. Our political system made horrendous efforts to help the people of New Orleans. They needed something local to come together around because Washington wasn’t providing that stability.
- Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.
Sports as a Means of Getting an Education
As Al Gore stated in his book, The Assault on Reason, “In an age where education has more economic value than ever before, it is obvious that education should have a higher national priority. It is also clear that democracies are more likely to succeed when there is wide-spread access to high-quality education”.  While it is clear that proper education is important, it is not necessarily easy for youth, especially those in at-risk areas, to have access to proper education. There are, however, many ways in which athletics can provide opportunities to kids and teens that otherwise would not have access to proper educational tools. Thanks to these opportunities, our citizenry can become more adequately informed and the Public Sphere benefits, as well.
The Tiger Woods Foundation
Back in 1996, Tiger Woods and his father, Earl, set up an organization to provide educational resources to students that would help streamline them into colleges across the country. The Tiger Woods Foundation has a campus in Southern California, two campuses in Washington D.C., and have recently announced that another location will be opening up in Philadelphia. At these campuses, students are provided with a great amount of technology and learning tools that give them a hands-on learning experience that is difficult for them to obtain in the inner-city public school system.
After the death of his father in 2006, Tiger Woods dedicated the Earl Woods Scholarship in his memory. This scholarship is given to the most deserving students involved in the TWF and provide them with thousands of dollars every year to help pay for their college education. In addition, the TWF also provides these scholars with a mentor and specialized internships that prepare them for life after they graduate college. Not only does this scholarship program provide urban youth with a means of continuing their education and help jump-start their careers, but, given the selectivity of the program (dozens of scholarships for thousands of students) the competition motivates the students to be their best and learn as much as they can. Because of this, even if they miss the cut and don’t win a scholarship, they have hopefully learned a lot in the program and will be able to leave the program with a quality education – perhaps even continue their education on their own.
By setting up these campuses in big cities like Anaheim, Washington, and Philadelphia, the TWF has reached out to thousands of youth that otherwise would not have access to high-quality educational tools such as those the program provides. Thanks to these tools and the Earl Woods Scholarship program, urban youth become more educated citizens and will eventually be able to give back to their communities in similar ways, creating a cycle that, hopefully, will break the barriers preventing urban youth from having access to proper education. It is a prime example of how professional athletics can reach youth in ways that traditional educational systems simply cannot match.
High School Athletes Escaping Bad Situations
Compton, California is one of, if not, the most dangerous cities in America. Once referred to as the murder capital of the US, young teens have little hope of ever leaving the gang-ridden city, let alone making it past their teen years alive. College recruiters, however, flock to Compton on a yearly basis to scout the talent, particularly for football and basketball. Athletics are one of the only ways for young people to get out of their dangerous living situations.
In 2011, CBS News and Sports Illustrated Magazine joined forces and followed a high school athlete named Kitam Hamm Jr. and showcased how his parents, once linked to the Crips gang, taught him how to survive in Compton. Hamm had a GPA of 3.8, but because of the reputation of Compton, very few schools had interest in his academic prowess. What stood out to the top universities, however, was his tremendous football talent.
Schools from all over the country, including Ivy League institutions, were constantly in touch with young Hamm, as college recruiters usually are, and they all took great interest in his life and safety. At his high school, his teachers and coaches took special interest in Hamm because they knew that he had a ticket out of that horrible place and wanted to see him take it. To some, the vulture-like tendencies of college recruiters can be a turn off and will say that they don’t care about the student, only the athlete. But, regardless of their intentions, these recruiters have given Hamm a way to get out – a way to survive.
As with the case with all athletes in inner cities, simply participating in sports helps student-athletes from staying out of trouble. “Football practice occupies the biggest chunk of Hamm's school day. That's by design. The time between school letting out and nightfall is when boys in Compton get into trouble. Football provides an alternative.”  By keeping these at-risk teens busy, it keeps them away from the gangs, away from crime, away from police. The structure and discipline sport provides helps them become better role models for their fellow citizens. It helps the community rally around something healthy, collectively. While this may be more difficult in inner cities, it gives some in the community something to be proud of: seeing Hamm, who has been through what they’re going through, “make it” into a better place in the world.
Given his academic abilities, regardless of whether football pans out as a career, Hamm has the ability to go on to contribute great things to society and reach out to others in his situation. At the time of the article’s publication, Hamm indicated that he would like to attend Columbia University; a prestigious school built on academic success. Thanks to football, Hamm and countless others have been given the tools to succeed in life and make a better society.
How it all Connects
Jürgen Habermas and other scholars of the Public Sphere list sport as a distraction from “important” issues in the world such as politics and the economy. In some ways, they are right, although I believe that sport is intended to be a distraction; a way to help people get through the hardships of daily life. However, what they fail to account for is how the economic and popular force that is sport and how it can influence an entire culture and an entire nation.
During the recent National Basketball Association (NBA) lockout, there were dozens of local businesses in small-market NBA host cities (Cleveland, Portland, Oklahoma City, etc.) that were forced to go out of business because the games no longer attracted fans to their stores/restaurants near the stadium. Places that would normally be packed with crazed fans before and after basketball games were barren. Even the arenas had to layoff employees because there was no money coming in from games anymore. Sports provided these cities with business, prosperity, and culture. In order to have a healthy Public Sphere, it is important for the citizenry to not only feel pride for their home, but also have a sense of comradery with their fellow citizens so that difficult problems might be solved more easily. A group is more likely to reach consensus when they like each other rather than hate each other.
Education is the bloodstream of the Public Sphere. Without it, society would become decultured and mankind would slip into a radical state. It is important that every citizen be provided the tools necessary to make that education happen. While that task is nearly impossible to accomplish, sport plays but a small role in that education. An athlete doesn’t have to “go pro” in order for their years of dedication to mean something. In the case of Kitam Hamm Jr., sports provided him with a path towards the highest education in the country in the Ivy League, the moral structure and fortitude that should be sought in all citizens, and even helped him stay alive past the age of 18.
In the case of the Tiger Woods Foundation, urban youth become interested in education in ways that public schools only dream of doing. Putting a famous name and face like that of a professional athlete’s draws in a demographic that otherwise would find education to be boring and pointless.
Also, it is important that those who succeed through these programs continue to pass on their learning and connections with others that are in similar situations to those that they were in. For Kitam, that mentor role was filled by Greg Camarillo, a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings that met Kitam through his inner city program and has helped guide him in his life ever since. Kids need a chance and sports give them that chance. It is a small role, to be sure, but to those who are lucky enough to get those opportunities, the world is opened up to them. Like Al Gore said, “…democracies are more likely to succeed when there is wide-spread access to high-quality education”.
Effects of Lockouts on the Public Sphere
While Jürgen Habermas and other influential figures of the Public Sphere say that sports are merely a distraction, it is quite apparent that people connect with sports in ways that cannot be done otherwise. Sports play a tremendous roll in the education of students, helping develop young minds into mature, goal-driven contributors to society. Sports may not be out of a textbook, but lessons can always be learned. Professional sports are entertaining for viewers and still provide lessons for the younger fans, such as how to interact with players from the other team and respecting your coach. Children understand sports and always have a favorite athlete; someone they want to be when they grow up. Professional athletes serve as mentors, even though they may never come in direct contact with their biggest fans.
Being a professional at anything, whether it be in medicine, dentistry, or sports, comes with a responsibility. Professionals are expected to act as exemplary members of society. Recently there have been some rather serious disturbances to that image. Since the turn of the millennium, there have been five lockouts in professional sports. There were two in the NHL, two in the NFL (a player lockout and a referee lockout), and one in the NBA. While these lockouts certainly frustrate everyone immediately involved, it also disrupts the Public Sphere outside of the sport itself.
The first of two NHL Lockouts would occur during the 2004-2005 hockey season. It was the second lockout since Commissioner Gary Bettman took the reigns, and it would cripple the league’s image. Before the season even began, team owners were demanding a salary cap of $35 million and a plan to give players a 50/50 cut on league revenue.  Negotiations were on-and-off until Bettman finally decided to cancel what was left of the already-reduced schedule. An entire season of hockey was being cut from the calendar, and there were talks of the following season being cancelled as well.
While the financial aspects of the lockout between players and owners seems insane for most people, the financial impact on the immediate areas surrounding hockey rinks was apparent. Areas such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Boston witnessed small businesses having to close shop. This was a direct result of the lockout because without the hockey season, some small shops could not afford to stay open. Their revenue came from tourists and fans, and without hockey there was a serious decrease in both. Shops that sold memorabilia and replica uniforms struggled without the influx of money from fans. While millionaires squabbled over dimes and nickels, people who paid attention to hockey saw a change in the sport’s image in the Public Sphere.
Before the start of the 2011 NBA season, Commissioner David Stern announced that the league would be locked out. There had been talks of such an event for months, but people held out hope that the issue would be resolved without having a second sports lockout in the same year (the NFL had held a brief lockout just months before). However, there would be immediate groans of disbelief and resentment as the NBA locked out its players. It would be yet another argument over money, and “it was extremely difficult for most NBA fans to sympathize with millionaires and billionaires arguing over money.” Even though the NBA was able to salvage its season and play a condensed schedule of only 66 games (instead of the normal 82), its image in the Public Sphere had been badly wounded. In similar fashion to the 2004-05 NHL Lockout, small businesses around the basketball arenas were immediately and harshly impacted by the lack of tourism and fans.
The fan base of the NFL was aware of the oncoming lockout as early as April of 2011, and it was ready to accept its arrival. It wasn’t that people would not fight it, but that people believed it could be ended quickly. Fans were okay with a low profile draft and a quiet offseason, but that was all in the anticipation of a quick solution between the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and the owners. However, the NFL Lockout would not be solved as quickly as fans had hoped. Just like the NBA players and owners would do later that same year, NFL players and owners argued over millions of dollars. Again, merchandise sales plummeted and, just like their NHL and NBA counterparts, NFL fans started turning their backs. While the millionaires dispute over money, they forget about the people who essentially paid them. Without the fans, many owners and players would not be as rich as they are today. The NFL Lockout was another victim of the Public Sphere in sports, and those within the league had only themselves to blame.
Back in 1994, Major League Baseball (the MLB) encountered its own player strike. Prior to its occurrence, owners had seen the sport’s popularity as a chance to cash in and get rich; what they forgot to do was keep fighting for the sport. When the MLB’s elite kicked back and allowed everything to go up in flames, the fans were all but forgotten. Fans were not too displeased initially, but with the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, everything changed. Baseball had been enjoying the peak of its popularity, and in an instant it was gone. Baseball fans don’t see the World Series as just a championship, but as an entirely different season.
Jump forward to the NFL Lockout in 2011 and the same attitude can be seen amongst the fans. People didn’t mind the loss of preseason games; those hardly counted for anything more than a scrimmage. What people worried about was the loss of an entire season. With the NFL’s level of popularity, especially in recent years, a cancelled season could have ended the league. While the 2011 NFL schedule would proceed almost without interruption, minus the preseason games, it left a scar on the NFL. Once again, due to the greediness of millionaires, the Public Sphere was affected by the flow of money and not by the sport.
How the Lockouts all Connect in the Public Sphere
Jürgen Habermas may believe that sports are a distraction in the Public Sphere, but in the U.S. everything runs on money. That’s just the way capitalism works. Without a profit it is hard to succeed. Based on that fact alone, it is not far-fetched to say that sports are not actually the distraction anymore, if they ever were. Instead, the distractions stem from the disruption of comfort. People feel comfortable when they are watching sports and enjoy themselves. When that is taken from them, they lose a contributing factor to their pursuit of happiness. The Public Sphere is affected more by the flow of money than the act of watching a sporting event.
What these lockouts all have in common is that too much power was put in the hands of too few people. Due to the very fact that capitalism is a democratic idea, one could argue that the Constitutional rules should still apply when it comes to making decisions. As Al Gore states in his book, The Assault on Reason:
Not enough people had a say in any of the lockouts. Players took to Twitter, Facebook, and other media outlets to vent their frustration, but nothing they said would be heard by those in power. Only a handful of star players ever have the ability to influence such an issue, but even then the stars’ requests and ideas can fall on deaf ears. The only thing players could do was wait it out and find another way to kill time. In the NBA, for example, a number of players left to play in other leagues around the world. To these players it was more about being able to play than about making an extra couple million dollars.
The lockouts always cast a shadow over the affected sport because of how the incident looks in the Public Sphere. No one will sympathize with rich men trying to make more money than they can handle, and as a result the fan bases can shrink or even disappear. Sports can be entertaining, but they become a distraction when money is an issue. Of course, that’s the nature of capitalism, but democracy does not exist behind the closed doors of those lockouts.
- Gore, Al. The Assault on Reason. London: Penguin, 2007. 250. Print.
- Benedict, Jeff. "Straight Outta Compton." top student and football star in South Central L.A., Kitam Hamm is one of a growing number of high school athletes who face life-and-death decisions every day as they try to survive in gang-infested communities. 5 Dec 2011: n. page. Web. 26 Apr. 2013. <http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1192636/1/index.htm>.
- Dater, Adrian. "NHL lockout timeline: comparing 2004-05 to 2012-13." As the calendar nears the Sept, 15 expiration of the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement, it's starting to look, sound and feel a lot like the dark fall of 2004. 29 August 2012: page 1. Web. 24 April 2013. <http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/adrian_dater/08/23/nhl-lockout-timeline/index.html>.
- Glass, Alana. "Why The NBA Lockout Wasn't So Bad After All." We can all agree that the NBA Lockout didn’t shed the greatest light on professional basketball. 2 December 2011: page 1. Web. 25 April 2013. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/sportsmoney/2011/12/02/why-the-nba-lockout-wasnt-so-bad-after-all/>.
- Toback, Shaun. "NFL Lockout 2011: How the NFL Is Shooting Itself in the Foot." Early April is a boring time to be an NFL fan. 1 April 2011. Web. 24 April 2013. <http://bleacherreport.com/articles/651542-lockout-2011-how-the-nfl-is-shooting-itself-in-the-foot>.
- Gore, Al. The Assault on Reason. London: Penguin, 2007. 216. Print.