If you ever find yourself walking around downtown Pittsburgh on a Friday afternoon in the early fall—when the weather is still nice enough to be jacket-less—you’d encounter many of the amenities that consistently place it on America’s Most Livable Cities lists. The world-renowned Cultural District. Restaurants helmed by Beard-nominated chefs. Architectural and topographical marvels unseen anywhere else in the world. And, of course, thousands of people. Accountants and baristas. Lawyers and florists. Students and sales clerks. Writers and engineers. All doing the things that people in cities do.
But if you’d never been to the ‘Burgh before, you’d also be perplexed. Maybe amused. Maybe horrified.
“Why,” you’d ask God “is EVERYONE wearing Pittsburgh Steeler jerseys?”
If lucky, God might respond. “Because it’s Friday, and the Steelers play Sunday.”
And then you, still so bewildered by the jerseys that you’re not even shook by the fact that you’re literally having a conversation with God, respond: “OK. And???”
I know Pittsburgh ain’t unique in the sort of maniacal devotion to a sports team that would compel a 46-year-old man to drape a Troy Polamalu jersey over a tailored suit and then leave the house and go to work looking like that. But the dependency on sports that normalizes this behavior is uniquely American. No other country has as much invested in the idea, the action, and the economy of sports as we do. And as I watched the reverberations of the NBA’s bubble bursting Wednesday last night, I wondered if we might be better off without it. Not the NBA. But the multi-billion dollar amateur and professional sports industry.
To begin to grasp just how thoroughly sports interknits with, well, everything American, I just need a mirror. I (probably) would not be sitting here, writing this, if not for the tangible impact sports has had on my life. I was a full scholarship D-1 basketball player. Which means, among other things, that I’ve never had student loans. Which means that paying off said loans was never a factor when determining my occupational path. I didn’t start writing full-time until a decade after I’d graduated from college. The things that have happened since then—including the creation and building of VSB, the acquisition of VSB by what was then Gizmodo Media Group, the salary I now receive to write, and the two-book deal at a major publishing house—don’t happen without the freedom to tinker and fail and find my own way that I was provided by being good enough at a sport at 18 that someone would pay for my college education.
Situations like mine are spun, by defenders of sports culture, as one of its most positive attributes. Sports enables kids who are poor and Black like I was to attend schools we’d never be able to afford, to visit cities and states (and countries) we’d never be able to see or make personal connections that would’ve remained out of our grasps. But the stray lifeline that sports provide for kids like me obscures both the pathological dependency on unpaid athletic labor that makes it possible and the pervasive economic (and educational) disparities that make sports-inspired philanthropy necessary.
And this is just me. This is just my life. There are also, today, the thousands of lives that are being risked because high school and college administrators, and city and state and federal politicians, are desperate to field high school and college sports teams during a pandemic. Sports have become so vital to the economies and the sensibilities of these schools and communities and cities that they literally cannot function without them. So they are willing to risk the lives of their students—and the lives of the people in those students’ lives—because they, we, can’t live without the (free) labor of those student-athletes.
And then there are the (usually Black) communities razed and lives destroyed to build sports venues, like Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill was in the 1950s to build the Civic Arena. And then there are the owners of popular professional sports teams who extort cities into paying for bigger and better venues. And then there are the myriad ways that America’s most popular and lucrative sport—which also happens to be our most-watched television show—destroys the brains and bodies of those who participate. And then, again, there’s me, last night, watching these young men and women decide to wield the power that sports has provided them, and being moved to tears by their actions. And then also being annoyed and disappointed that I’d have no games to watch. I am so addicted to watching sports—and also to reading about and talking about and watching people talk about the sports that I watch—that my instinctual initial response to a strike intended to save Black lives was ambivalence. And not ambivalence about whether they’re doing the right thing; but that this very right thing is slightly disrupting my evening television viewing plans.
And that’s scary. That’s crazy. That’s sick. That’s American.
There are national conversations happening now—about racism, about law enforcement, about capitalism, and about public health—at levels I’m still astounded by. What has been the status quo for my entire lifetime, and for lifetimes before mine, is facing a reckoning today, and the immediacy and urgency of it all still give me whiplash. And maybe it’s time for sports, and our—and my—pathological dependency on them, to get in the fray, too.
Join the discussion! The Root is hosting its first-ever, virtual Root Institute, presented by Target, featuring several of the leading minds in our community talking about politics, culture, health, community building and social impact. Subscribe for updates today!