Superbowl Notes: The Great Dictator, Sorry, Sports Coach

In 1984, like a good sports fan, I paid diligent attention–as I had previously in 1976 and 1980–to the Olympics, held that year in Los Angeles. Very few events were telecast live; we had to be content with lengthy packages of highlight clips. Included in them was as the triumphant march to an eventual gold medal of the US basketball team, the last amateur U.S. team to win an Olympic gold medal in men’s basketball.   It included, among others, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Chris Mullin and Wayman Tisdale. The team’s coach was Bobby Knight.

From the first time I saw Knight’s Knights play, I was transfixed not just by their dribbling, shooting, and slam-dunking, but also by the sideline antics of their coach. That crimson-faced worthy, seemingly permanently afflicted by a combinatory species of apoplectic fit and asthma attack, raged at all and sundry, pacing up and down like an amphetamine-fueled father in a maternity ward. He did not, then, commit any acts of physical violence–as he would later–but it did not seem it was for lack of intent. To my awestruck eyes, stunned at this sight of an infant’s tantrums embodied in an adult body, it seemed that if he could have, he would have strangled someone, anyone, that had, just for a fatal instant, dared to obstruct his favored methodology of playing basketball. Those nets, ostensibly put up as targets for basketballs, would have functioned just as easily for Bobby as gallows from which he would have strung up those that defied and transgressed his rules.

As you can tell, I was impressed by Bobby Knight; he certainly left an impression. I had never seen a sports coach behave like that. I didn’t realize it then, but I was receiving a quick education in the culture of the American coach, a figure that in this Superbowl week, as is usual, will be deified and exalted by a kind of attention only rarely directed elsewhere at other central figures of American culture.

The peculiar irony of the American coach, of course, as has been obvious to all too many observers of American sports, is that in this land of the Brave and the Free, whose politicians’ speeches are all too often paeans to freedom and the rugged individuality of its citizens, he or she embodies the Grand Vizier of Authoritarianism. No one else, sometimes I think not even corporate bosses, can control an American body and soul as much. Not for nothing did William Gass write in The Tunnel

I suspect that the first dictator of this country will be called coach.

This thought didn’t cross my mind in 1984 when I watched young giants troop sheepishly off the floor to be berated and harangued by the livid Knight, but some form of it remained front and center as I came to observe more of Knight’s partners in the coaching enterprise. It is a cult that finds sustenance quite easily in its accumulated mythology.

This week, and this coming Sunday, we will witness its latest renewals.

Baltimore Dispatches – II: Ford vs. Chrysler, Or, Picking Your Favorite Professional Sports Team

Today’s activities in Baltimore feature as centerpiece, attendance at a backyard barbecue structured around a football game. It’s Sunday, it’s fall, football is on, the Baltimore Ravens are playing the Kansas City Chiefs. There will be beer, grilling, and frequent trips to the restroom. Sounds like the kind of thing you’d do in a sports-crazy town on the weekend, one that started on Friday night, for then, Baltimore was in the feverish grip of the Orioles-Ranger playoff to determine the American League wildcard. Tonight, sports fans in Baltimore will execute a masterful segue from devoted following of the National and American Football Conferences to Major League Baseball’s American League Divisional Championships as the Birds take on the Yankees. Baltimore versus Texas! Baltimore versus New York! Er, Baltimore versus Kansas City! The stuff of long-standing, politically significant, emotionally charged historical disputes.

Or not.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I am confronted again with the mystery of how millions of sports fans, here in the US, and all over the world, develop long-standing, passionately defended and articulated, emotionally infused, personal allegiances with large, profit-seeking, corporate entities, an enterprise that should be–but most definitely isn’t–akin to finding someone to cheer for in a Ford vs. Chrysler encounter. (Sorry, bad example; if you walk through the parking lot of a NASCAR event, you will find many who can do just that.) I succumb to the marketing pitch all too easily myself. Somehow, despite all my misgivings about the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, despite its gentrifying, traffic-causing, neighborhood-destroying tendencies, I find myself making plans to go watch the Brooklyn Nets, cheap tickets for which will run well north of $50, looking forward eagerly to Knick-humbling, thinking about a Nets shirt and cap. They are, after all, a very cool black. Dodgers-shmodgers. Brooklyn has its ‘own’ team, hooray. Bring on the rest of the world. Or at least, bring on the other boroughs.

Disliking some teams is easy too: I reflexively loathe the Cleveland Indians for their mascot and the Washington Redskins for their name; I dislike the Boston Red Sox because, well, they’re the Red Sox. In the world of professional soccer, I take refuge in easy formulas like disliking English soccer clubs, thus transferring prejudices acquired in the world of cricket to a new domain. It seems all too easy. The Edgar Allan Poe theme of yesterday’s post reminds me that last year, when I asked my sister-in-law if she had adopted Baltimore’s football team as her own, her answer was, ‘Well, of course, how could you not cheer for the only team in the NFL to be named after a literary character?’ Which in turn reminds me an old rejoinder of mine when asked about my NFL allegiances: ‘Both New York teams, the Green Bay Packers, and no one from the NFC East.’ Why the Green Bay Packers? Well, how could anyone not like the NFL’s only non-profit team?

As this little collection of irrationally acquired prejudices shows, there isn’t much sense to it, and there couldn’t really be when easy tribalism is such a prominent motivation. The true wonder of it is how it builds and soars to the heights of quasi-religious fervor, expressed loudly in those gigantic, fueled-by-tax-breaks temples, sports stadiums, which dot the land whose dictator would be called coach.