There’s been a minor flap about the comments of Lions’ wide receiver Roy Williams (not to be confused with the Cowboys’ terrific safety, Roy Williams) following the Lions shellacking at the hands of the Bears on Sunday. With his team trailing 10-0 (they lost 34-7), Williams caught a pass for a first down in the second quarter and did a celebratory pose. After the game, Detroit Free Press writer Mitch Albom had the following exchange with Williams about his “thataway” gesture (http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060918/SPORTS01/609180369/1082/COL01):
"Shouldn't poses like that wait until things are looking better?" I asked Williams after the game.
"I celebrate first downs all the time. I'm not gonna stop that. I'm an exciting player. If I do something exciting, I'm gonna show my actions."
"But you were losing, 10-0."
"What does that mean? ... That means nothing to me. The score means nothing."
Those of you who have been reading me regularly know that I bristle at the “kids today” trope that characterizes so much of sports coverage. I do so not because I always endorse what the “kids” are doing. Rather, it’s because I think there’s a tendency to neglect the larger context within which today’s high-profile athlete operates. The young men in question are products of a larger set of cultural developments, and if their actions are frequently objectionable, it strikes me as worth our time to think about why such selfish, unsportsmanlike behaviors have become more commonplace.
I was thinking about this larger context while watching the Jacksonville-Pittsburgh game last night. The converted QB, the wide receiver Matt Jones, had a good game for the Jags last night and during one second half stretch caught three passes for first downs in quick succession. Tony Kornheiser, who seemed to add little to the broadcast, commented after at least two of Jones’ catches that his performance was good for Jacksonville and good for Kornheiser. Why? Because Jones is on Kornheiser’s fantasy team. I can’t actually remember an announcer ever before touting his own fantasy prospects during a game he was covering. It’s not quite the same as rooting for a team you’re announcing because you bet on them, but it struck me as crossing a line, nevertheless. It seems to me that the focus of any team sport ought to be on the outcome of the game itself – unless some historic individual record is on the verge of being broken. That is the essence of team sports – that individual performance is subordinate to team goals. It is, in fact, the perceived erosion of that ethic that has so exercised the sports commentariat and fans these past two decades or so (it’s a lament that goes back much farther, of course, but we’ll leave that aside for now).
But, it occurs to me that fantasy sports is a perfect symbol of the age in which we live – that what matters is individual performance, not team outcomes. Furthermore, everybody is a free agent, available to the highest bidder, and the only goal, as personified in the over-rated Jerry MaGuire, is doing well in order to land a big pay check. Let me clarify that when I say fantasy is a perfect symbol of the age in which we live, I don’t mean just sports. I am talking about what analysts of globalization call neo-liberalism, the dominant understanding of the relationship between the state and the market that first took hold in 1979 with Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy as Prime Minister in Britain and was central to the Reagan revolution that hit America’s shores a year later. It was Thatcher who famously said “There is no such thing as society, only individuals” and that ethic has spread globally in the quarter century since she first uttered it, attacking the concept of public goods in favor of a belief in the primacy of the individual and individual freedom.
Now, one may agree with the general sentiment or disagree. But, a focus on personal achievement, on individualism and on doing that which furthers one’s self-interest as the supreme values in a society (all of which comprise the essence of neo-liberalism) is an inescapable outgrowth of larger political and economic developments since the late 1970s. And, in that light, it ought to be of no surprise that the first generation to have grown up in that era (those who are 25 and younger), when the idea of “public good” has been so decisively defeated, should say the sorts of things that Roy Williams said on Sunday. Don’t misunderstand me – I am not defending Williams. If a player on the Giants made a comment like that, I’d be pulling my hair out. But, we needn’t scratch our heads in disbelief at comments like these. They exactly mirror the individual/fantasy age in which we live. What is it that James Baldwin once said about kids? “children may not listen to their parents. But, they will never fail to imitate them.”
We have gotten exactly what we have bargained for. And, as Kornheiser showed last night, you don’t have to be a kid to forget what’s most important about a football game.