The year-end lists are falling down in drifts, such that you could rank a pretty decent list of lists if your life was just that empty. Events are pretty much guaranteed in a given year — those incremental, transactional developments that mark the passing of time and require year-end lists to even recall they happened. Twitter feuds between Philadelphia sportswriters, for instance, are amusing for half a day. Then everyone forgets about them, or nearly, within a couple of weeks. Hence, the return visit in December to give the news a second chance to stick.
[Actually if you’re just going to hit one list on sports media, you could do a lot worse than Richard Deitsch’s over at Sports Illustrated. It’s upbeat, mostly, hewing to the old adage that the worst condemnation is not to be spoken of at all, but occasionally it does feature a heavy dose of left hand with its compliments. E.g., “Around the Horn host Tony Reali has improved every year on a show that should be shown in North Korean prison camps.” With congratulations like that, who needs indignities?]
In shorter supply are new thoughts. Most coverage is derivative of events, and because of the nature of sports, most events are scheduled. The novelist Katherine Dunn adores covering boxing because it is a state of “ritualized crisis,” bringing out the responses that people usually experience in earthquakes and bear attacks and shipwrecks and the like. But it’s still ritual, as with pretty much everything in sport, and it’s tough to wring new thoughts out of rituals. One massive, massive exception this year: learning that a major American university would cover for and veritably abet a child rapist because he happened to be a football coach. The Penn State revelations were seismic, and will likely shape the business of college sports permanently. When the actions of an assistant football coach wind up toppling the university president, you know the power structure needs an overhaul.
It won’t change how most fans watch the games, though. (Perhaps for a few penitent Penn State fans. But even those were shown to be the rare exception this fall.) In strictly conceptual terms, the most interesting idea that I saw floated this year about what it means to be a sports fan came from Grantland. In one of the first pieces on the new site, Chuck Klosterman tried to explain why DVR, an invention that would seem to be perfectly suited for sports, sucks so much of the fun out of the games. In so doing, he might just expand the way we see ourselves as viewers.
He grants that the lack of commercials removes pauses that are essential to tension, and that power to fast-forward is so godlike as to make life dull. In short, the DVR undermines the best part of watching live television, that is, the illusion that you’re not watching television at all. Reality, it turns out, needs its bite.
Without the sense that these games are happening right now, Klosterman argues, fans also feel disengaged from the superstitious aspect of viewing. “If you think your mind and heart play a role in the game you’re watching, a DVR’d game is like trying to hug a dead body,” he writes. This has always been irrational, and not just because yelling at people on TV to dunk it or to strike his ass out or to learn to tackle for the lovvachrist never made those things happen, really. Even if you believe in the power of prayer, the seven-second delay plus the transit time of a broadcast would mean that at any given moment you’re praying for an outcome that might already have been determined.
That goes to Klosterman’s most piquant point, I think, on why DVR is poison for sports. We’re so connected now, with texts and Twitter and everything else, that if something truly extraordinary had happened in that bowl game you recorded, in that Finals game you were saving for late-night, you know deep down that word would have leaked to you. If the Pacers and Pistons brawl after a nondescript regular-season game, for instance, you’re sure to find out about it well before you cue up the recording. “We don’t crave live sporting events because we need immediacy; we crave them because they represent those (increasingly rare) circumstances in which the entire spectrum of possibility is in play,” Klosterman writes. “They’re the last scraps of mass society that are totally unfixed.”
That gets to the heart of it better than anything else I’ve read, and nearly solves this sporting paradox. Most of sport falls firmly into the year-end list category — amusing, forgettable. But sometimes, when it becomes actual news, sport blasts through the ether at a speed that far outstrips its relevance. Those are rare, fantastic moments, and they can’t be bottled. Deep down you know, no matter how entertaining a game is on DVR, if it were really that incredible, someone would’ve filled you in already. If there’s no chance that your mind is going to be totally blown, well, you might as well just play god and fast-forward.