Reflections of a Fading Fan


This article originally appeared in Issue# 36

Television has transformed simple coverage of a spontaneous competition into a spectacle, a carefully choreographed show.

It happened gradually. The thrill is not gone. but it's fading. The excitement is still present, but so are other feelings... frustration, sadness, even disgust and anger. The change came as a shock, for watching televised sports events has always been a positive experience for me. Now I am finding myself disturbed by the coverage. My viewing seat is becoming an uneasy chair.

A quick self-examination assures me that my credentials as a fan are still intact. I study The Sporting News with the devotion usually given sacred texts. I memorize statistics with practiced ease. And I participate in at least a half-dozen sports myself. As a pastor, I encourage people to pay attention to their needs for physical as well as spiritual re-creation.

But as a viewer of sports, something is turning me off, or at least turning me away from my enthusiasm. That something has to do with die relationship between sports and the television medium.

What I'm realizing is that television has transformed what was once simple coverage of a spontaneous competition into a spectacle, a carefully choreographed show. Although still an essential core, the game itself is no longer the primary point of focus.

The focus is now the coverage, the hype and hoopla created by the promoters and orchestrated by the commentators, the directors and, of course, the advertisers who are eager to build a captive audience of enthusiastic fan-consumers.

In effect, most sport on television has become "mediafied." And it's a change that has called me to thoughtful reflection about the underlying values not only in the television coverage but also in myself, as a sports enthusiast and viewer.

On one level, "mediafied" sports have led to modification of the games themselves. Television time-outs and video replays are two clear examples. Such artificial breaks in the game cause delays and alter the pace. Accommodation to commercial commitments devalues the live experience; the rhythm and accompanying flow of emotions are disrupted in favor of programming needs.

Although instant replays allow us to enjoy a good play over and over, they also permit viewers to be less alert. Why concentrate when you can always catch what you miss?

The move to use replays as referees in some sports saddens me. Questionable calls and imprecise officiating provide some of the high moments in sports viewing. And replays negate the value lessons derived from learning to live with the consequences of bad decisions, lousy calls and the frailty of human judgment. Perhaps we need such lessons more than we need videotape precision.

From another perspective, television sports have some significant ramifications for family life. The proliferation of televised events, especially via cable, makes it seductively easy to be a sports junkie. Already, one man's addiction to ESPN, the cable sports channel, has been cited as spousal neglect in a Texas divorce case.

I have seen TV sports schedules dictate the timing of family and community events. And I am fully aware that church gatherings and pastoral calls dare not intrude upon the sacred time-frame of "the big game."

A third area of concern for me is how televised sports present a distorted view of male/female roles. Coverage of events showing women as athletically skilled is sparse; depictions of women cooperating with one another in team sports are even rarer.

Portrayals present males as warrior-athletes cheered on by bouncy, adoring women. Fans who make it on camera tend to be either beautiful women (displayed for the pleasure of male viewers) or foolish-acting men (apparently non-athletes who compensate with such macho displays as standing bare-chested in subzero weather).


"The problem with electronic officiating is that it's electronic - not human."
Jim Turner, NFL Official

As stereotypes, these roles are hardly ones on which to base a healthy and just society. And they ignore potentially honest reactions to the impact and drama of sports contests.

Values Shifts

On a more basic level, commercial considerations and concern with ratings have resulted in a significant values shift which disturbs me more than any other change in sports coverage.

The lure of lucrative television contracts and stardom has brought about an enormous emphasis on winning, since losers don't get broadcasting contracts.

Some values liabilities are obvious, some more subtle. The inordinate emphasis on winning strips away a good part of the playfulness that games are meant to inspire. It identifies losing as something to be avoided and despised, rather than as an experience that provides an opportunity for graciousness and the acceptance of limitations.

It teaches that losers can be ignored, while winners receive reward and adulation, irrespective of their methods of winning. It leads toward unsettling associations with an "America's Number One" form of patriotism, an association amplified by advertisements for the military during sports telecasts. This emphasis on winning should raise some serious questions, especially for persons whose faith requires them to pay caring attention to the lost and the losers.

Although I keep these doubts and questions in mind, I'm still a fan and still turn on the channel. I haven't totally turned off. But I watch with greater awareness that I'm taking in more than just a game.

Author Bio: 

Glen Rainsley is a UCC minister who has served several congregations. He is also a professional tennis instructor and has written two books of worship resources. His most recent book (Small Wonders, Pilgrim Press) is children's sermons.