The stereotypical small-town person, or at least man, is a fan of sports, probably football. As I’ve written elsewhere, this isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is misunderstood. In fact, I’d like to offer a counterpoint: an example of how small-town living reveals how unimportant sports can be.
And that might shed some light on current events, like the new women’s hockey “strike.” But let’s lay some groundwork first.
My hometown is football-crazy, but not in a way that most towns are. I mean, I come from a high school that is a downright dynasty: years in a row going undefeated, winning the majority of state titles in a decade, a coach in the state hall of fame, and statewide recognition for the whole football program—a kind of lifetime achievement award. I come from high-school football Nirvana.
But you’ll notice I didn’t say that I come from a “football factory.” Unless you’re from there, you’ve never heard of anyone who played there. Why is that? How can such a dominant dynasty go decades without producing a single pro player? Or even a major-conference college player?
See, my hometown is so small, we played nine-man football. That’s right: in small towns, even the football teams have fewer people.
So, imagine the scene in my hometown on a Friday night: most of the houses in town are dark, because everyone’s at the football game. The band comprises most of the student body, including all of the girls, and all four boys who aren’t wearing helmets. It’s the cultural highlight of the week, for better or worse. People are excited.
And most of the players wouldn’t even see the field at a big school. In fact, some of the starters probably wouldn’t even make the roster. Literally.
No one cares, though. As entertainment, it was good enough.
Let’s step it up about six notches. I grew up a couple of hours from Fargo, North Dakota, home of another football dynasty: the North Dakota State Bison. Like my alma mater, the Bison routinely bring home championships, except the national kind. Championships at NDSU are so common, in fact, that losing at all counts as a disappointment.
But they play down a notch, too. They’d get whipped by the big boys in major conference football, like Alabama or Clemson. Those schools play for a different caliber of national championship, it turns out.
Do people in Fargo care? Nope. Not at all.
(A side note here: NDSU has indeed played—and beaten—schools from the top conferences in football [Minnesota, Kansas State, and Iowa, for example]. More impressive, they’ve beaten those teams in their own stadiums! But no one thinks NDSU could beat Alabama or Clemson. Man, I wish they’d get the chance, but my money would be elsewhere. Sorry, Bison fans.)
Anyway, football fans in my hometown, even fans from my hometown who religiously drive to Bison games every other Saturday each fall, have stumbled upon a truth of athletics: when it comes to watching sports, the level of play is actually pretty insignificant.
Sure, people are most likely to watch the best athletes, and it’s easy to see why: they’re fastest, the gameplay is the most exciting, and they play for the biggest prizes.
But it doesn’t matter—I mean, really matter—does it? Bison fans still get pumped, right?
There’s a historical angle here, too. We routinely hear about how “the game is changing,” seemingly regardless of the sport. Athletes get bigger and faster. Equipment changes. Strategy evolves. Watch football or basketball or hockey from decades ago, and you’ll see a difference, and not just in camera quality.
Did the Stanley Cup mean any less to Gretzky’s Oilers? Do we think Vince Lombardi’s Packers weren’t worth watching because they’d get smoked by many teams in the NFL today? Hardly.
In sports, the competition is key, not the actual level of play. As long as the teams are evenly matched, people will watch. Then, all other things equal, people will prefer to watch the higher levels, for reasons described earlier.
And that’s the reason why pro athletes are paid so much: the top levels entertain us most, period. If all current NFL players were shipped to Neptune tomorrow, we’d simply watch the next crop of NFL players, even though the level of talent decreased. It wouldn’t matter, really. It never really mattered.
In fact, we already watch that next crop. It’s called college football.
And it’s all “better” than watching nine-man football, remember?
So why does it matter when professional athletes “strike?” Well, it gets a little complicated, mainly by the perversities of collective bargaining law, or perhaps by the perversities of the very concept of collective bargaining generally. Regardless, the big reason strikes in professional sports are effective is because professional teams are contractually prohibited from hiring scabs.
Without that legal detail, we wouldn’t know the difference. We’d keep watching, we’d keep cheering, and life would go on. As entertainment, virtually all athletes are expendable, because there’s always—always—someone willing to play for less.
Or for free.
But who cares? Well, 200 top players from the National Women’s Hockey League are declining to play next year, all in hopes of shedding light on the fact that they are paid poorly, probably less than minimum wage in many cases, all things considered. This is apparently unacceptable. Many sports writers, including some whose work I have come to like and appreciate, seem to think we should care about this.
I don’t, really.
Now, before we go further, I actually like women’s hockey. It’s a big deal in my home state of Minnesota. I actually go to women’s college hockey games. Of course, even at the college level, women’s hockey players are skilled, dedicated, and highly trained. None of what I’m about to say is directly related to the facts—facts—that a) the players in question are women, b) they play hockey, which compared to football and basketball is a relatively unpopular sport, or c) they play in a fledgling league.
Instead, the point here applies to all professional athletes. The complicated reality is that sports are both crucial and superfluous. As a healthy means to instill discipline and competitive edge and team-building, they’re essential to our cultural fabric. I mean that—there should be more of it. Sports are important, for young and old people alike. We’d all be better off joining pickup leagues instead of tailgating.
But professional sports exist outside this realm. Again, they’re superfluous. We can’t care about them in the same way—we can’t pretend they matter like lower-level sports that young, developing adults play. In fact, we can accomplish all of sports’ good stuff on our own, locally, with amateurs and poorly paid coaches, as literally generations of people in my hometown have discovered. The professionals exist principally as entertainment, plain and simple.
So, sports are important; professional sports aren’t. Even semi-pro sports, like top-tier college football seems to be, are expendable. They might even be a net negative, but that’s a different story.
And no, we don’t need pro or semi-pro athletes to inspire people. I remember looking up to athletes at lower levels just as much as pro athletes. More so, maybe, because I kinda knew some of them. Again, we can do that on our own, locally, and with amateurs. Again, maybe even better, with both men and women.
So here’s the rub: professional athletes are, at root, entertainers. Highly skilled, highly dedicated, and hard-working entertainers, but they are in the entertainment business. High schools and colleges, on the other hand, are in the business of providing athletic opportunities for people, even if no one watches, as if on principle. Professionals? Not so much. It’s just entertainment.
And as entertainment, women’s hockey isn’t quite ready for the big time, apparently. Some good evidence? The professional women’s hockey league in Canada just folded. And they were operating as a non-profit (literally, it turned out). And they were in Canada, where hockey is king. Or queen. And even they couldn’t make it work.
Heck, women’s basketball—which has much broader regional and socioeconomic appeal than a sport that requires sheets of ice to enjoy—has a professional league, too, but it has fewer than half of the teams as the men’s league. And it draws even fewer fans. (And that’s with financial backing from the NBA!)
Considering the failure of Canada’s league and the plight of the WNBA, as well as the fact that Americans can watch other incredible athletes play hockey from about September through June (in the NHL), I’m unsurprised that women’s hockey is a step or two behind, entertainment-wise.
Kinda makes sense that those entertainers wouldn’t get paid much, yes?
This doesn’t speak to the personal trials and perils of the athletes, of course—just people’s willingness to watch them. So it goes. Remember, nine-man high school football can be a quality product, too, but that doesn’t mean people will watch that, either. When I was in high school, the nine-man state-title games at 8:00 AM didn’t exactly fill the Metrodome, even compared to the bigger games with the bigger schools later at night. Still, I’d say that small-time high-school football can be important.
At the same time, no one complains when the Vikings don’t sign anyone from my hometown, either. That’s just…business. You know, like professional sports.
But don’t tell a lot of sports reporters that. They’re writing about how poorly women’s professional players are treated compared to the men. Sorry, but is there some sort of unspoken Title IX of professional sports now, or something?
I’m not citing sources here so as not to single anyone out, but it’s there. And it’s missing the point.
As you might have guessed by now, this has nothing to do with gender. Men’s professional lacrosse players aren’t compensated very well, either, but we don’t get the grand philosophical arguments from the athletic news media about that. Why not?
The simplest reason is that professional athletes are entertainers who provide a service that literally thousands of others could provide, and for less money. That keeps wages down, at least in the majority of sports. Also, the fact that men have the market cornered when it comes to athletics and entertainment, or “athletic-tainment,” should surprise and concern no one.
And if you’re not “athletic-taining” enough people, you go out of the “athletic-tainment” business. Sure, strike if you want. Pretend there’s something grand at work. But in this case, there isn’t, I don’t think. The best parts of sports happen locally, with amateurs, on dusty gym floors, and uneven rinks, and in weight rooms before school. That’s where the tears and the blood and the vomit matter most. That’s the good stuff of sports.
And we can get the good stuff without professional athletes. In any sport. Of any sex.
To professional athletes and the people who write about them, what’s happening in women’s hockey might seem like an important labor dispute, or a big strike.
For those of us who get excited about nine-man football? Not so much. It seems like a big strikeout.
P. A. Jensen is editor of RuralityCheck.com.
He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.