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Sports appeal discussed at academic conference
STANFORD -- When three-time gold medal swimmer Pablo Morales watched the 1988 Olympics with his father at home, he had to turn away from the television set on two separate occasions.
The first was right before the start of the 100-meter butterfly race that Morales felt he could have won, had he qualified for the games.
As the Stanford graduate waited for the event to begin, he was overcome by a feeling of "complete and utter attachment to that race . . . so much so, that I couldn't watch it."
Seeing a close-up of Evelyn Ashford's face as she stretched toward the finish line to win the 400-meter sprint relay for the United States had a similar effect on the two-time Olympian, who discussed his relationship to sports -- both as a spectator and as a participant -- at a symposium on sports appeal at the Arrillaga Sports Center on Friday, May 12.
"It was a very deep attachment I had to participating in the games and I think it's the reason why I would come back four years later," he said.
Morales, winner of three gold and two silver medals and world-record holder in the 100-meter butterfly, said striving for the athletic ideal of getting "lost in focused intensity" when the pressure is on was a central factor that motivated him to swim obstinately, as many as four to five hours a day for 20 years.
Health consciousness, self-discipline, character-building and, in some cases, financial incentives are among the factors that draw athletes to competitive sports. But why do spectators flock to stadiums to cheer on their favorite teams or spend hours sitting on bar stools or sofas to watch athletic games on television?
A panel discussion that included Morales, a sportswriter, an economist and a communication major wrestled with this question during the second day of a three-day conference on "The Athlete's Body in History, on the Field and in Society."
Hans Gumbrecht, the Albert Guerard Professor of Literature and one of the organizers of the conference, asked the panelists to speculate on the role of the athlete's body to sports appeal.
"We have a hard time, even athletes have a hard time, talking about the body," Gumbrecht said. As a consequence, he noted, most discussions on sports appeal tend to focus on a range of ethical justifications for sports, such as character-building and providing role models in lieu of other aspects such as aesthetics and sexual appeal that might contribute to its popularity.
A growing trend among advertising companies to use athletes as spokespersons has contributed to the elevation of athletes as popular icons, said Gregory Collins, a senior majoring in communication. "Before, if you weren't a sports fan, you wouldn't see Shaquille O'Neal on television."
The types of athletes selected to hawk Nike and Pepsi are picked by companies to "propagate the idea of an ideal athletic body," Collins said. The media spotlight, he noted, rarely falls on 350-pound offensive linemen because their body style is seen "as ridiculous and occasionally obscene."
Youth today have an obsession with the body that derives in part from the visible presence of athletes in popular culture, Collins said. "Growing up in the 1980s, I see the [athletic body style] as an icon, the thing to replicate," he said. This observation may indicate that there are generational differences in the way society views athletes, suggested Gumbrecht.
Despite images of sleek and muscular athletes as mega- stars, longtime sportswriter and author Leonard Koppett contends that the athlete's body is incidental to his or her appeal as a player.
"In sports, we're focused on what the body accomplishes," Koppett said. "When you look at a ballet dancer, it's the movement of the body itself that is correct or not correct according to your aesthetic judgment. But in most games . . . you're concentrated on did the ball go through the basket or didn't it? Did you tackle the man on the field or didn't you?"
It's the inherent drama that accompanies competitive sports, not an athlete's well-muscled physique, that attracts a huge following, Koppett said.
"The essential characteristic of a contest or a sports event is that when it starts, nobody knows how it's going to come out, therefore it is an automatic story line," said Koppett, member of the writers wings of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Football Hall of Fame.
Spectators, Koppett said, get a vicarious thrill from watching sports. They can experience violence, elation and even defeat without breaking a sweat. They can second-guess players and feel as if the players are their representatives on the field.
"Those are very powerful appeals that other forms of entertainment don't supply," Koppett said.
Sports fans feel such an intense attachment to sports that a fan whose team has lost is more likely to believe that nuclear war could happen than a person whose team has won, said Allen Guttmann, one of the world's leading sports historians.
Similarly, students of a winning team show up on campus wearing T-shirts with a school or team logo on the following day and declare that "we won," said the Amherst College professor of American studies.
In contrast, student fans of a losing team tend to wear plain clothes and say "we lost," when referring to the defeat, he said.
Guttmann, who presented a talk earlier in the day titled "Eros and Sports," was critical of Stanford economist Roger Noll's thesis that "most people are not particularly interested in sports."
Noll made the case that the percentage of spectators who have a deep attachment to sports is really quite small, contrary to popular belief. He built his argument around statistics culled from the San Francisco metropolitan area that suggest more than half of the attendance of all professional sports events is accounted for by holders of season tickets.
The median number of baseball games that Bay Area sports fans attend is between 25 to 30 a year and the median number of football games they attend is eight (out of 10) games a year. The number of baseball fans who actually buy tickets to a major league baseball game in a given year is approximately 250,000 out of a population of 6.5 million.
Noll said these figures amount to "a relatively tiny fraction of people who are willing to spend something like hundreds of dollars of their income to be regular attendees at sports events. Everybody else has a willingness to pay to express the degree of interest that they have in sports that is under that price, which means it's not very important."
Sports is a small business, Noll concluded. Macy's in the Stanford Shopping Center takes in substantially more revenues and makes substantially more sales in a year than any sports team in the Bay Area, Noll said.
"Whatever the appeal is of sports, it isn't something really deep and important," he said.
Guttmann countered this line of thought by saying that televised sports events have garnered consistently high Nielsen ratings for the past several decades. And according to recent surveys, Guttmann said, 90 percent of men and 75 percent of women in Western Europe and the United States say they really care about sports.
"The first part of the newspaper a man opens up is the sports page. It's a cliché, but true."
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