Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Sports Darwinism

This one's going to get a little bit far out there, Nation. Crack open a beer and/or fire up your bong, or just skip down to the more pop stuff.

Sometimes I like to stretch my mind out with pretentious and difficult magazines, so that I can feel superior to other people on the train as they watch DVDs of "Far Too Many People Tolerate Raymond", "read" the NY Post, or pass out and drool on themselves. It's one of the ways in which I'm embracing my increasing decrepitude. That, and voting, and lawn care.

Anyway, in one of these magazines recently, a writer reviewed a book about alternatives to Darwinism that aren't magical thinking. The piece made me brain hurt, and I'm going to have to read it again with a dictionary and some liquor before I'm comfortable enough to misquote and misrepresent it further, but it also inspired something more understandable and useful.

To wit, that while our society and technology may have evolved into something more than Hunt and Gather and Screw, our brains, bodies and emotions mostly have not. (And this is true of both men and women, so any of you ladies who are reading this, ha ha. Y'all might be more evolved, but in the words of the late great Bill Hicks, it wasn't the men who were buying the Billy Ray Cyrus albums.)

So we have to fight against the more reptilian or primitive aspects of our nature -- ergo, fear those who don't look like you, eat as if you will not have food available to you for many days, propagate regardless of the number of other bipeds that are already on the planet, and use anything you like that's in front of you, because the planet is much, much bigger than you, and will always make more. These instincts may have served our ancestors well in the wild or in pre-historic times, but as you are walking through midtown Manhattan, they'll just get you slapped around or worse, and you'll also be pretty unemployable.

So how does this tie back to sports, the velcro-like social phenomenon that all things stick to? Well, in any number of ways. Sports is primal; it's about who wins and who loses, and with rare and celebrated occasions, we want to identify with winners. Winners keep playing, losers stop playing, and if you lose long enough, someone with a clipboard decides that you're the problem, and you should not play anymore. We pick our teams, usually as children, and want them to win, and we become attached to the players that help them win. It's the first and most primal thing we do as fans.

However, sports has now evolved into a situation where we all have more options -- many more options. Unlike yesteryear, when your team stinks you don't have to just endure it. You can just concentrate on your fantasy teams, focus on trying to beat the spread with picks, go play realistic simulations games, or just pick another team, since the stigma of being a bandwagon fan seems to be lessening with time. Or just indulge your hate and root for whoever is playing the team you want to go down.

So as sports fans, we're caught in an evolutionary moment. Teams like the Phillies, who spent decades wallowing in mediocrity or worse back in the day, can't afford to be down that long anymore; the audience will melt away until they get better, to the point of more or less permanent loss of market share. Teams like the Yankees and Giants can't really change the way they operate, because they have to fill their expensive yards with at least the illusion of maximum effort every year, even if the best idea in the long-term might be just to play kids and take their lumps for a little while. The NFL accelerates into an era of distressing sameness and rampant un-watchability, because over half of the league is trying to catch that lighting in a bottle instant ascension.

Sports Darwinism discourages organizational patience, defeats out-there innovation, assimilates any positive practice at speed and goes for the short term with even more speed than before. It's not even "what have you done for me lately"; it's "What are you doing right now?" And even if you are aware of it, and feel like it's wrong or wasteful, the fact that the whole system is more or less going there means that you pretty much have to come along, too.

I'm convinced that, in my lifetime, we will see a more or less complete erosion of the home field advantage in every sport, as teams from wealthy areas benefit more and more from traveling fans, and allegiances to locals fade. It's evolution; it's survival of the richest, it's the speed of things, in that bailing on your bad team and selling the tickets to the enemy camp is just simply smart economics in a time where everyone -- teams, players and fans -- are all looking out for their own best interests as free agents in the marketplace. And the younger fans will know of no other way, assuming they are watching sports at all.

Don't think this is happening? Then tell me this... where is the bigger home field advantage, at a college game or a pro one? The former, of course... because the players are less attuned at dealing with hostile fan noise, and the tickets are being sold for less money to younger people. In the pros, with rare exceptions (i.e., each other), the Yankees and Red Sox are always playing to neutral or supportive crowds. Watch what the stands look like at the Linc when a Giants team with something to play for comes to Philadelphia; there may be fights in the stands, but there will also be more applause for the visitors than they have ever heard before. And if the Giants were down, the same would be true for the Eagles in the Meadowlands.

Finally, there is, of course, sports blogging, at least when the activity stays on actual sports. From this, the views of average or better fans are heard by their opposite counterpart from other teams in great numbers, and in that moment, evolution continues. One of the contributors to FTT is a rabid Eagles Fan and Redskins Hater; he comes by it from his formative years in the 80s, when he lived amongst their fan base and didn't like the experience.

Despite the fact that the Skins have not been relevant or terribly problematic for the Eagles for many years (realistically, the last time the Skins really hurt the Eagles with a loss, Mark Rypien was involved), his hate is pure and unchanged: it's as if that game was last year, not 20 years ago. Personally, my ire has shifted to Boston Fan, and that's more or less directly attuned to fantasy sports. In this evolution / perversion (the difference is purely in your own story of the situation), hating a team is counter-productive, since it keeps you from finding valuable players that could help your team. And so on.

Deny your monkey heritage, or come up with further pieces to the puzzle in the comments.

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