The Toy Department

Watching a day of NFL football on TV this past Sunday, I saw more ads featuring casual sex and explicit violence than in my first 30 years of sports viewing combined. And yet we constantly hear from network broadcasters that sports are, after all, for the children.

I first heard of the horrific slaughter of innocent women and children in the nearby town of Newton, CT while listening to a sports-talk radio station in my car. My heart sank even before the grisly details of the killings were released. But my shock was quickly replaced by anger; not primarily at the then-unknown murderer, but at what I knew was soon to follow. Though it’s hard to admit, sometimes the coverage of this barbarity bothers me almost as much as the actual acts themselves; and I suspect I’m not alone in this. We are sadly all too familiar with the mainstream media’s reaction to these awful crimes: the 24/7 coverage replete with gruesome images accompanied by maudlin music and worst of all, the huge, sensationalistic headlines like “Death in Connecticut” or “A Nation Mourns.” I don’t doubt that there is true sadness on the part of the media, but one can’t help feeling that the desire for huge ratings drives their in-your-face coverage. Ultimately the government joins in with the plethora of reporters and descends upon the affected communities with ‘grief counselors’ and hordes of other intrusive and unwelcome functionaries, instead of leaving these poor people alone and in peace with their families and their God. But perhaps the worst offender in these bizarre dances of grief-for-profit is the predictable commentary from the sports world. Within seconds of reporting the shootings, the host on the sports-talk show employed nearly all of the tired clichés you’d expect: “This puts everything into perspective...we cover the toy department of life...sports are just a distraction from real life.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Sports are not only a part of real life, they have influenced and impacted that life in ways that are not good. Yet many sports fans have bought in to the ‘toy department’ myth. A common claim is, “We watch sports to take our minds off the real world.” How this can be true is beyond me, unless they consider the doings of unions, lawyers, agents, drug-testers and congressional investigators not parts of real life. Mix in the all-too-often accounts of wife-beating, DUIs, drug busts, and the occasional murder charge, and you’re sometimes unsure of which section of the newspaper you’ve wandered into. There have always been sports. There have always been people who enjoy watching gifted athletes perform; be they the graceful ancient Olympians or those who fought to the death in the arena, the games have gone on uninterrupted down through the centuries. And there has always been violence inherent to certain sports, chief among them modern football. But to my knowledge, up until the last few decades or so, there was no steady stream of reports of violence and crime committed by athletes upon the public in general. Now some would say that I am making an unfair generalization, that there are bad apples in every profession; but that’s not the point. When a white-collar criminal embezzles funds or when teachers or clergymen abuse children, it is highly unlikely that the folks who account for the lion’s share of their salaries are simultaneously making money glorifying similar behavior. Yet this is precisely what happens with televised sports. Watching a day of NFL football on TV this past Sunday, I saw more ads featuring casual sex and explicit violence than in my first 30 years of sports viewing combined. And yet we constantly hear from network broadcasters that sports are, after all, for the children. Just once, I’d like to hear one of these folks encourage the following discussion between parent and child: “Son, I don’t want you wearing the jersey of that player, because he is a bad man who treats women like objects, abuses drugs and alcohol and has friends who make records about killing people.” You will sooner hear the flapping of pigs’ wings before any purveyor of televised sports comes anywhere near the truth of that statement. Yet we who love sports are constantly exposed to the pontificating of on-air personalities like Bob Costas, who are quick to blame violent crime on inanimate objects, but oh-so-slow to point the finger at a more logical source: that from which they glean their living; their own networks, awash in the glorification of sex, drugs and violence. But the networks are not the only guilty party here. The NFL can indeed <a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/sports/football/22toyota.html?_r=0”>call the shots</a> on commercial content as they did last year with a Toyota ad that originally featured a collision of the helmeted heads of two football players, but was altered when the brass intervened. The league also prohibits running ads from the gambling industry during game broadcasts. If TV and NFL honchos wanted to address this problem, they most certainly could. But don’t hold your breath. If the sports world is indeed the toy department of American life, then it’s time we stop letting our children play there.
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