Much more than sports as mere entertainment

“Those who think that sports are merely entertainment have been bemused by an entertainment culture.”

— Michael Novak, “The Joy of Sports”

For those who insist that the commercial colossus of major college football has no soul, that it is played out primarily for television audiences in the pursuit of maximum ratings by teams that use unscrupulous methods to procure unpaid teenage talent, I give you Saturday night’s Alabama-Georgia SEC Championship game.

Granted, I had emotional interests in this, so I was going to be hooked from the start. But as Georgia ran out of time on Alabama’s 4-yard-line, and as tens of thousands in the Georgia Dome and elsewhere were screaming about why Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray didn’t spike the ball to stop the clock, I had just one thought that I have kept to myself, until now:

This wasn’t just entertainment. This wasn’t just a good way for sports fans to kill a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, and into a Saturday evening. Calling it “A Game for the Ages” just doesn’t cut it, even if that description is completely accurate.

It is, like most of what has been written and said about this game, inadequate.

While there was plenty to play for — a trip to the national championship game for the winner — what the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide gave us has been absolutely missed by the sports media, churning away as it constantly does, tossing out conventional platitudes and throwaway references. There are deadlines to be met, more than ever.

This wasn’t spectacle. This wasn’t entertainment. This couldn’t, shouldn’t have been reduced to simplistic “instant analysis” that is rarely expanded upon, unless it’s to dub it an “Instant Classic.”

Why do we of the sports realm limit ourselves to what games like this truly represent? Why must the confines of the sport represent all that this game embodied?

This epic contest transcended football, and sports, although I doubt that many who don’t follow or care much for college football ever knew what had happened.

That’s fine. But even if you wanted Alabama to win, the gut-wrenching agony in the faces of Georgia players and coaches was hard to ignore. The hurt and the pain reflected a game that didn’t turn out in their favor, but it symbolizes so much more than who won and who lost.

I’ve spent most of this college football season fretting about conference realignment, NCAA “investigations” of minor misdeeds and the inherent violence of the game. But what’s been bothering me more than anything in our flood-the-zone, on-demand sports media world is how worthless so many games have been rendered.

The sheer volume of every game not only being televised, but overanalyzed to death, has been absolutely dispiriting. Instead of yapping on talk radio or a podcast or Tweeting or blogging on something to an incessant degree, to boost traffic and ratings and a “personal brand,” sports journalists should be helping us make sense of what’s important in all of this. Not just the game they covered, or the team or conference they’re assigned to.

Not this interminable “What We Learned” tripe (see “instant analysis,” above). Help me understand why I should care, beyond the fact that it’s just another game and in college football every game counts, yedy yedy. What’s the significance beyond the immediate moment?

Three days after Georgia-Alabama, I still feel short of breath when I think of the dramatic twists and the big plays. Alec Ogletree’s recovery of a blocked field goal for a touchdown. A.J. McCarron’s magnificent head-on-a-platter touchdown pass to Amari Cooper.

And Georgia’s ill-fated final pass play.

These will remain timeless, as does Novak’s assessment so many years ago of a new breed of sports journalist wizened to the world, but, as it turns out, tone deaf to the true meaning about which he writes:

“The motive for regarding sports as entertainment is to take the magic, mystification and falsehood out of sports. . .

“I don’t watch football to pass the time. The outcome of the game affects me. I care. Afterward, the emotion I have lived through continues to affect me. Football is not entertainment. It is far more important than that.”

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