The timing of Michael Novak’s death from cancer on Friday, at the age of 83, comes at an especially intriguing time in American politics and society.
The Catholic theologian and author of dozens of books, mostly about the convergence of religion, philosophy and public policy, is the author of the sports book that has influenced me more than any other.
“The Joy of Sports,” first published in 1976 and revised in 1992, is Novak’s metaphysical romp about sports and the deep meanings it holds for players and fans alike. It inspired me in part to begin this blog, and I think its message is even more relevant today.
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Also In This Issue: Remembering Mike Ilitch: Swindler Or Saint?
I picked up the later edition shortly after it was released, coming as it did during a time of cultural conflicts in the 1990s that have eerily re-emerged in our time.
For Novak, a leftist anti-war crusader-turned-conservative, “sports are deeper than politics. . . Sports are sports, not politics.”
If his sentiments seemed old-fashioned at the time, they’re positively quaint today. Novak proclaimed that “there is no greater sacrilege than politicizing sports,” and declared that those who insisted on doing so are misdirecting their rage against America into sports.
Novak regarded sports in ways that many view the arts, as an expression of the human spirit. To reduce sports to mere politics, he argued, is “a form of totalitarianism” that’s beyond dehumanizing:
“To politicize sports is to contribute to the politicization of everything, the blaming of everything on politics, and the despair of many naïve persons with the human condition—which they falsely seem politicians can wave away.”
Like those who find nourishment in novels, music and art, there are those who see sports not as an escape from life, but as a creative extension of what it means to be human:
“Sports lie at the very root of liberty and law, in the free play of intelligence and imagination, and in the animal (and the spirited) zest for self-perfection.”
That’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read about what sports mean to people, and “The Joy of Sports” is chock full of such insights that would generate non-stop scoffing today.
The day before Michael Novak died, sports media writer Bryan Curtis laid out yet another sports-and-politics piece at The Ringer. I posted a comment that I’d like to flush out a bit more here.
That post is an interesting exploration of how establishment sports media has tilted very far to the left and a classically myopic example of media navel-gazing, oblivious to the forces that led to the November presidential election results. It follows a similar piece Curtis wrote in January, about sports journalists who mock readers insisting that they “stick to sports.”
In my mind, Curtis’ presumption that Donald Trump’s election means “the end of stick to sports” is premature. What’s astonishing is the hostility and open contempt some sports journalists have for those people for whom they’re writing: Their readers.
In both pieces, Curtis interviews some of the more smug examplars of this revived attitude, the inheritors of the socially-conscious journalists Michael Novak decried in “The Joy of Sports.” In seeing “politics as the real world,” Howard Cosell, according to Novak, “leaves out the inner power of sports, the power of the human spirit.”
Yet the influence of Cosell (whom I wrote about along these lines here) has been enormous for succeeding generations of sports journalists, for whom the simple enjoyment of sports will not suffice.
There’s a need for some to be regarded as more relevant than writing about ball games, overpaid athletes and crazed fans. Baseball writer Jonah Keri is an unfortunate trafficker of these notions, insisting that sports-lovers who don’t want to hear about politics are stuck in a bubble.
He seems to conflate the examination of social or cultural developments, such as Jackie Robinson, as “political,” and this is where the trouble lies. Keri also mistakes political awareness, or what’s dubbed “woke” today, for an ideal gravitas that must include sports.
It’s no wonder readers are becoming disenchanted with this constant scolding. As I noted around the holidays, too many sports journalists insist on using their professional “platform” to speak out for their personal beliefs. Not only is this not what they were hired to do, it’s got the potential to backfire.
Toward the end of his life, the socialist writer and historian Irving Howe wrote passionately in defense of the traditional literary canon. He was dismayed at how the humanities had become politicized, especially through the “multicultural” phenomenon of race, gender and sexuality that has pervaded American campuses and the media establishment in recent decades:
“If you look hard (or foolishly) enough, you can find political and social traces everywhere. . . . But what a sad impoverishment of the imagination, and what a violation of our sense of reality, this represents. Politics may be ‘in’ everything, but not everything is politics.”
I fear that similar developments are brewing in sports, and sports media are the carriers of an equally toxic message. Novak nailed this bitter lot decades ago, but it’s one that seems strangely and sadly empowered now:
“The new sports journalists misunderstand their subject. They lust for politics, for implications; they covet power and wealth and social significance. They seem uninterested in sports.”
I especially concur with North Carolina sports columnist Art Chansky, who frets that for those of us who wish to appreciate sports for their own sake, there’s no place to hide.
Mike Ilitch, 87, Little Caesar’s pizza magnate and owner of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, was remembered fondly in his hometown media, especially the reminder how he helped Rosa Parks financially in her later years.
Deadspin took its usual trashbag approach, with a Detroit-born writer (now conveniently living in Brooklyn) noting Ilitch’s propensity to soak the public for new facilities and enjoy tax breaks for real estate speculation.
The writer, Bill Bradley, has teed off on Ilitch before, and bitterly grumbled about kid-glove treatment from the Detroit press. As a taxpayer in a county in which the Atlanta Braves have managed to skim from the public in secret fashion, I can appreciate the indignation.
However, Bradley ought to have reserved some of his ire for public officials who didn’t say no to Ilitch, even in a city as desperate as Detroit.
As detestable as their demands can be, sports team owners really aren’t the problem. Elected representatives who spend money that’s forcibly removed from my wallet were ultimately responsible for giving into the Braves. The most powerful politico of them all, who engineered the back-room deal to bring Major League Baseball close to my doorstep and into an already nightmarish, traffic-congested corridor, was booted from office. Democracy works, if you work at it.
But it’s a lot easier to round off on an “opportunistic businessman” and lapdogs in the media. Cynicism and sneering at readers are a regrettable part of the water supply in sports media. At some point, however, my profession has to get back to what it does best. Its current indulgences are becoming as embarrassing as they are out of touch.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 72, published Feb. 19, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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