My oldest brother is eight years my chronological senior and six inches my vertical junior. When he was a teacher and I was in high school, summers were spent playing a lot of basketball in our driveway in California on a counterweighted hoop on a very shallow slope with the kind of rounded brick that could make dribble angles just awkward enough to screw with drives to the hoop or post moves, not that I was capable of the former or very good at the latter. Being tall got me through a couple years of competitive middle school ball and eventually landed me a marginal slot on the varsity squad at a small boarding school in a pretty uncompetitive league, but my brother had dealt with being relatively diminutive for his entire amateur career (and thrived in said uncompetitive league at said boarding school) and he figured out how to use that to his advantage; sleight of hand instead of pointless flash; angles instead of power; balance. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten him before.
While I’m sure this isn’t a concept reserved for American backyards and driveways, i.e. big brothers in Egypt probably beat their siblings in soccer, Australia in rugby, there is a bright nostalgic line drawn from the halcyon days of American masculinity (1945-1959) to modern athletic endeavors on a domestic and international scale, the latter being the second most important form of Yankee domination after unparalleled economic leveraging. We export sports in the same way we export McDonald’s: we convince foreign lands that their sports are somehow just different versions of our sports and that our sports are far more lucrative and rewarding and epiphanic and, most importantly, important.
What is sort of funny about that dreamy and benign export is that the other half of American sport is this amazing, testosterone-fueled bellicose endeavor; sports as proxy war. In domestic leagues (NBA/NHL/MLB/NFL) competition doesn’t begin to turn sincerely hawkish, the violence outside of rivalry games in American cities aren’t predicated on mutual hatred anymore than alcohol or masculine insecurity, sometimes people just want to fight. International competition is something completely different and alternately terrifying in its zealous patriotism and rapturous in its spiritual completeness, there is absolutely nothing like seeing your country beat the figurative shit out of a nation that you feel inappropriately antagonistic to—only in international sports is bald xenophobia acceptable across the viewing spectrum.
It’s in this really odd mix of magnanimity and artillery fire that I find something fascinating about the big brother/little brother mentality around international exhibitions and tournaments like the Davis/Ryder/President’s Cup, the NHL and MiLb all-star games, and any number of games between both grown men and 11-year old boys. It is constantly U.S. against regional bloc (U.S vs. Europe, U.S. vs. International) as if the only way for a region to challenge absolute American athletic dominance is to get all the little brothers in the neighborhood to play the Yanks, 4 -or-5-on-1, and see if there’s a fair fight when the demographic pool is considerably larger.
Example: When the Duke University men’s basketball team went to China in the summer of 2011 for an exhibition tour they didn’t end up playing the Shanghai Sharks or the Bayi Rockets (the Georgetown men’s team wasn’t as lucky: they played the Rockets, the Chinese equivalent or Army or Air Force, and got their asses kicked, literally, by the opposite squad. Just so we’re clear these are professional soldiers that happen to play basketball on a high level fighting a Georgetown team that has six freshmen on the roster) they played the Chinese men’s national team. They won 2-out-of-3.
Ostensibly these exhibitions are meant to expand a university’s brand in an emerging market like China where students desperately want to attend American universities for reasons economic as much as academic. The history of basketball as a spring of civic pride for the United States has a substantial mythology starting with in the Cold War and going through various incarnations of Dream Teams, ugly losses to Mediterranean and South American infiltrators, and the hilariously named Redeem Team, though that last squad’s play was sweating and physical poetry. It doesn’t take too much a cynical leap of faith to consider Duke’s manhandling of a national team as victory in spiritual skirmish; we don’t even need to send professionals to do our work for us.
As for America versus the world, the biennial Ryder Cup is concept-as-competition; from 1927 to 1979 the event was bilateral, U.S. vs. U.K only. For reasons too obvious and grave to go into here, the Americans dominated the field of play after World War II prompting what must have been a hilarious discussion between Jack Nicklaus and the Earl of Derby, who was serving as the president of the PGA for some reason. They decided that the U.S. was simply too good to be faced on a nation-to-nation basis and started to include upstart golf havens like Spain and Italy in the competition, intracontinental rivalries and language barriers be damned. The event evened out, and the pan-European squad rattled off a treble of victories from 2002-2006. The contest was redefined as an international test of American splendor (at least from this side of the Atlantic) and the ping of golf balls somehow took on the weight of international bragging rights.
Golf isn’t the first sport I’d pick to represent a brutal competition between nations. Sure, it has some tactical gamesmanship to it; it has the brutal deliberateness of multilateral diplomacy; and topographic supremacy ends up counting a lot more than one would think. The lack of agile and lithe competitors creates an odd population of golf fans, i.e. most people who watch golf on TV or on the lush greens of posh country clubs love the sport and know the laundry list of psychological shortcomings that dot the PGA Tour (Phil Mickelson’s [apparent] disingenuousness, Vijay Singh’s [explicit] colonialized chauvinism, Tiger’s [appropriate] megalomania). Golf is still competition, some one still wins and the rest of the field loses.
Americans hate losing. They even hate losing at sports like golf which is somewhere between bowling and pro-wrestling on the popularity scale stateside because there’s nothing more fragile than the American sense of athletic superiority. We are meant to be winners. You can turn on a TV any Saturday afternoon and see 19 year olds doubling as raptors and bulldozers for teams like Alabama and Louisiana State, schools with less than impressive records in academia (isn’t it funny then, that the literary tradition in the South runs so deep?) but bursting athletic budgets that turn eerily gifted adolescents into fully developed celebrities before they attend their first English seminar.
There are, of course, tournaments where challenges are plainly bilateral and the end game typically takes on the form of a battle among rather than between nations. When you watch the Olympic medal count (NB: in America [and in Russia and in China] the only tally that matters is gold, the powerful logic being that while being good at a lot of events [i.e. winning any color of medal] is satisfactory for less than perfect nations, being the best at a lot of events is considerably more badass) the competition is to get to the top, there are no meta-medals for coming in second or third (China’s quirky dedication to winning obscure events like canoeing, trampoline, and table tennis as well as its rigorous-cum-ridiculous training programs in popular competitions like gymnastics and diving yielded an Olympic ass kicking, winning 51 gold to America’s paltry 36 in 2008).
It doesn’t take any powerful marketing campaigns to convince Americans of the culture/conflict sports duality though, we end up looking at athletic success as a simulacrum of personal and, though this latter concept is waning quickly in the shadow of Penn State and fantastic financial ruin, moral superiority. Athletes are just better versions of us. Competitive sports are always seen through a censored prism so often we think of the best players as especially dexterous deities without further consideration of their acute humanity, i.e. the exact sacrifices they make to become lesser gods, something David Foster Wallace addresses in a 1996 Esquire piece, “String Theory”:
Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it’s more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.
But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think.
DFW was known for completing a philosophical point to the brink of factual exhaustion, but I don’t think he took the concept of reverence far enough in String Theory. Competitive athletics in this country are gyroscopic, so unless sometimes comes along to fuck everything up (see: 2011 NBA Lockout) there is an amazing amount of illusory existentialism that goes into how the average fan sees their favorite team and, infinitely more important, their favorite player. They’re not heroes, exactly, because heroes represent something necessarily superhuman or at least prohibitively difficult which is why we don’t have heroes as adults in the same way as we did when we were children (e.g. at 8 my hero was Mike Piazza because it would be physically impossible for me to do what he did, while at 23 it is progressed to being infinitely improbable).
Wallace is correct, of course, in that Americans take one of two paths towards admiration of superb athletes: we see past the faked SATs and the botched Wonderlic tests and awkwardly circular answers to questions that college educated journalists ask “college educated” athletes because we would rather imagine athletes as the sinewy incarnation of true greatness, or we dismiss those same inconveniences with comedy and cute racism that on its best days pleads for a second look at the system of American sports from transformation of young, alternative deprived men (and yes, the politically incorrect truth is that economic athleticism is completely dominated by men, the spiritual/patriotic split is more even) into torpedoes painted with dollar signs.