YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Less reverence, more relevance is the way to go

December 27, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON — As sports prove ever grubbier and less worthy of reverent ceremonies, we Americans drench them ever more in reverent ceremonies.

I'm starting to think us kooky, a hunch that has mushroomed since I've relocated to a country in which:

* People don't chatter or quibble or write all that much about sports awards, with the occasional exception of BBC Sports Personality of the Year, which prompts a TV show that's just overdone enough to seem American.

* There's apparently a soccer Hall of Fame in Preston, England, but in 23 months I've never heard or read a single argument about who should be in it and who should not, and I just had to look it up to learn it's in Preston.

* Seeing as how the runaway national game, soccer, doesn't dwell much in statistics, you meet people here who actually loathe and speak out against sports statistics.

When one day on BBC radio I found myself defending American football gently against a rational Scottish columnist who scoffed at the very existence of sports statistics, I wound up thinking, Wow, who could loathe statistics? What have statistics ever done to hurt anybody?

Well . . .

Maybe in this age of unearthed doping and other forms of athletic grime, it's time we tempered the panting over sports awards shows, halls of fame and statistics. We could keep the halls of fame as they employ citizens, but abolish the awards shows and delete the statistics, all for the good of the country.

Think of it: We go to stadiums in droves. We stand and cheer for athletes. We clamor for their autographs. Then, just in case they didn't get the idea they're more special than we are, we pile on awards shows!

It's insane. It's a manifestation of the old adage that Chris Evert used to note, which is that when you don't have so much, nobody wants to give you anything, but once you have everything, everybody wants to give you more stuff.

And what about the recipients of all this flattery? Most of us find one minute of flattery unnerving; how about hearing it for 20 years? But no, we start 'em early, reaffirming their eminence on campuses by flying them to absurdly formal and worshipful college football awards shows, the Heisman presentation so churchy that I sometimes think Chris Fowler should wear a vestment.

Sitting through these shows, you can feel squirmy even for the athletes being feted, and studies show that anyone watching the entire ESPY awards program forfeits between 2.9% and 3.2% of his or her brain capacity that very night.

Actually, studies don't show that, but only because no one has done the studies.

It would be one thing if these shows had caught up to the zeitgeist, but no, they flat-out refuse to give such indispensable awards as Best Human Growth Hormone Injection or Most Valuable Dodgy Pharmacist or Best New Drug For Which There's No Test. The college award shows make no mention of such invaluable instruments as Best Booster, Most Astute Illicit Cash Payment or Most Corrupted Tutor.

They just ladle on a reverence that's getting ever more undue.

Then, having feted these poor souls for decades, we don't leave them alone in their middle age or dotage, getting all hot and bothered with ceremonies for halls of fame.

As a naive American born and raised to venerate Cooperstown and Canton and Springfield, I never lent any doubt to halls of fame until reading a luminous 1990s magazine essay that still adorns my storage unit in Connecticut. In ridiculing a Hall of Fame that wouldn't induct Jerry Tarkanian on moral grounds, Charles P. Pierce recognized as legitimate only the National Freshwater Fish Hall of Fame in Wisconsin for its clear-cut mandate that for entry, a fish need be only huge.

He posed that hallowed halls of awe did not befit a business so grubby as sports, but of course nobody listened, and now we have gimpy old men who ache to get into these built-up places as if chasing some vaporous legitimacy. We have younger men straining to protect their reputations so they might get in later.

And the whole issue often comes down to . . . statistics.

We have lived long enough under the tyrannical rule of statistics, and it's time to revolt. If athletes must always try to get an edge as the doping apologists assure us, then statistics mean ever less anyway. As a nouveau Brit, I'm starting to get mad at these numerical nuisances that have infested our contracts and distorted our view.

Misguided and misled, we somehow fashioned a whole sanguine summer of 1998 off two guys hitting home runs, one for a third-place club that finished 19 games out and one for a weak wild-card team. We later followed another hitter to 73 home runs in 2001, and the same guy to 762 career home runs in 2007.

Thus did an allegedly astute nation get hooked on a trivia -- the home run -- that only vaguely relates to its very game. Of the 40 baseball clubs to finish top-five in home runs in the eight seasons of the 2000s, only three made the World Series, only 14 even made the playoffs. No club higher than fifth in home runs won the World Series. As people who like the game of baseball itself can recite, no World Series champion has led the American League in home runs since 1984, or the National League since 1976.

Yet we keep fretting over statistics. England, meanwhile, has existed as a unified entity since the 10th century, and while I don't mean to paint it as ideal or even superior, I'm starting to think the longevity might have something to do with not getting caught up in statistics.

Los Angeles Times Articles