It is possible that you do not think Quentin Tarantino is a genius. It too is possible that you have little interest in that small group of people that are Judd Apatow's friends. When a celebrity embarrasses his or herself, it is possible you do not want to scold that person, joke about that person or even joke about others joking about that person. It is possible even that you didn't know it happened when it happened, and upon knowing, wonder why you should give a damn.
Maybe you have no opinion about zombies, don't know the song of the summer and care little about who is cast as Batman. Maybe to you, kindly reader, pop culture is a lamprey that attaches itself whenever you step into a supermarket or gas station or bodega. Maybe you'd rather hate than capitulate to a culture that is tenaciously mediocre; maybe to you ironic detachment seems a cure worse than the disease.
No one thinks pop musicians are the most talented or creative people making or performing music, few think actors are even actors but professional personas cultivating a brand, and that farrago of acting, music, costuming, … … … writing we call mainstream cinema, is impervious to ideas that cannot be projected to gross in the millions. James Cameron didn't plumb the depths of his soul to make Avatar—his grand achievement was developing a visual effect that could not be reproduced at home.
This emphasis on novelty, accessibility and mass appeal is sometimes, patronizingly, called populism, and sometimes, cynically, called seeking the lowest common denominator, but all it is is simple economics. Since the Industrial Revolution the most important three words of any business plan are "cheap" and "good enough." Someone realized, quite correctly, that small pleasantries over a hum of numbness was and is more appealing to the risk-adverse mind than “the bright face of danger.” A vanishing few people seem to mind hopping from fad to fad, style to style, living your youth doing what you are told is hip, living your old age remembering your life with a mixture of embarrassment and nostalgia.
But it is possible, I think, I hope, it is possible that some have a desperate irrepressible need for excellence. To us …
NFL football is manna to a starving man. It is a place of baseline excellence and fits of transcendence. Sport, and football particularly, achieves this heightened state through three simple ideas, ruthlessly enforced.
Suppose an opening at an art gallery, something prestigious, exclusive. The people attending are either friends, family or cronies of the artist or people rich enough to be able to afford the work. The former we assume to be corrupted, but about the latter? A painting is an investment, an excellent one at that, and those that purchase a painting are instantly corrupted by a desire to protect and enrich their investment.
Now also suppose the artist's work is so abstract that few can determine if it's good or not, and those that can cannot describe that quality through absolutes. Are these second set of “appreciators” corrupted by a desire to fraternize, a desire for credibility, a desire for fame, acclaim or what have you?
Sport is a simple set of rules and goals abided by and endeavored toward through the human body. Skillful execution of rules unites verse and photography, portraiture and song. The goal is always abstract but the higher goal is always to be compelling, to delight. In football there is an end zone, a first down marker to be fought toward, to be protected. And this goal, bounded by a few rules, is sought in endless ways. The set of those ways become a game, a story. In a trap block there is irony. In a ticking clock mounting tension. In a lopsided score there is veritas.
Gregory Corso envisioned a contest between poets. Neil Gaiman pitted Dream against demon in a battle of ideas. Ernest Hemingway wrought a simple story of a fisherman struggling to hook and exhaust a noble beast. Roberto Bolaño wrote of writer and critic fencing on a Spanish beach. The makers of movies and television, commercials and pop music, play king of the mountain for nonexclusive ownership of this:
We'll call it Mount Snooki.
Competition among peers or matched opposites reveals and refines excellence. Competition for a demographic supermajority is competition between Twain's the king and the duke for the easiest mark. We are approached through attractive and beguiling advertisements and publicity. Those advertisements prey upon our wants (an exciting life, an attractive spouse, the respect of others, etc.) and our weaknesses (insecurity about our body, our health, our happiness). We are induced to invest something: time, money, effort, reputation, etc. This investment is often initially small relative to the seeming payout. We may have a reduced rate of pay at the start or be given something free. We then lock ourselves in through purchase, often regret said purchase, and get cycled back to the start. The king and the duke, presumably, spent much of their lives running from angry mobs. George Lucas built a wall.
Had his prequels been players, they would not have netted a billion dollars, but been humiliated the first day of practice, cut and forcibly retired.
The highest level of competition requires the largest possible pool of talent. Messi's father was a steel worker. Ray Lewis's father abandoned him. Their success was not an elaborate form of inheritance. Is there nepotism in sport? There is nepotism in sport. Does it help Austin Rivers sink shots? No.
In fact so nearly pure is sport that the success of Doc River's son constitutes a minor outrage.
Sport is constructed of a small set of goals and rules. If you can run fast you can sprint. If you're tall and can jump maybe you can play basketball. Those abilities are determined empirically through competition among peers. So there is no family name of speed; no will that can grant arm strength. There is not full access. There are prejudices. Antiquated notions like the minimum height necessary to play quarterback, the infamous “good face” once valued by baseball scouts, the canards of the old scribes to protect the old ways, but these prejudices, these obstacles to access, are flimsy breakwaters against the tide of talent and skill and will.
Unlike the protected, insular world of pop culture, in sport access benefits those who grant it. To the amok corruption endemic of pop culture, its producers offered reality television and talent show competitions as an antidote, or at least salve. So Robin Thicke may battle Carrie Underwood for right to brand and sell our nation's music.
Whether you wish to think of sport as art depends in part on whether you wish to boundary art. It is football season again. That time of year when men of grace, men of brilliant skill, of almost morbid will, play within rules of no value, toward goals of no purpose, and against equals of few equal, to no end but singular beauty.