The Breakfast Table

Coddling Talent, Killing the Game

Dear Daphne,

Happy Bastille Day. My thoughts on the Women’s World Cup are those of someone who didn’t watch a second of it. But it’s easy to see, extrapolating from other sports, how women’s soccer could hypothetically be an improvement on men’s.

With modern conditioning and a wider talent pool, athletes’ skills outgrow old rules and arrangements. Sugar Ray Robinson once told A.J. Liebling that boxing was doomed because modern nutrition and workouts would turn boxers into killing machines. In baseball three decades ago, when pitchers got too dominant, hitting was brought back into the game by (slightly) lowering the mound, (informally) shrinking the strike zone, and (lamentably) introducing the designated hitter. In football two decades back, teams like the Miami Dolphins developed a tedious grind-’em-out-and-kick offense that turned games into field-goal contests. Passing, touchdowns, and short-yardage fourth-down conversions were brought back by moving the goalposts back.

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When rules fail, you no longer have games but track-and-field events. The exciting volley-filled tennis that was the rule at Wimbledon in the days of Borg and Nastase has given way to a monotonous game of ace-and-fault. Pro basketball, too, has lost much of its passing and playmaking charm to the stride-and-slam game of the Jordan era.

And in these sports, rule adjustments, like raising the net or the basket, are politically impossible. They’d render valueless billions of dollars in talents that athletes and their handlers have spent decades developing. So fans face a choice between seeing the best players and the best games. Most fans opt for the former. But the minority who prefer the latter turn (in basketball) to college teams and (in tennis) to women.

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Women’s soccer, I’m afraid, fails on both counts. You watch teams that could play the Bermudan men’s team for a hundred years without ever scoring a goal, and you get the same clotted, closed, scoreless-tie-producing game that men play.

It looks to me like the women’s sports craze is a fad. It serves a feminist political end, a fashion end, and a commercial end. There was an article in the Washington Post this morning on Brandi Chastain’s disrobing after her final penalty kick. The headline was, “When Brandi Chastain Bares Her Sports Bra, She Boosts Women’s Jock Apparel Market.” It was the most appalling act of postmodern sports preening since Packers’ QB Bret Favre tore off his helmet and ran a victory lap after the first touchdown in the 1997 Super Bowl. (Although that may just be the rueful Patriots fan in me talking.)

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I remarked to someone yesterday that “Brandi Chastain” sounds like a name you’d see on the credits for a hardcore porn film. My friend remarked that she actually has posed naked–for Gear magazine. Her rationale (quoted in this morning’s Post article) was: “Hey, I ran my ass off for this body. I’m proud of it.”

I don’t think I’ve ever read a statement against which prudes and hedonists would more likely unite in disgust. Jonathan Edwards would say, “It’s not your body. It was made for you by One who will someday take it away.” Casanova would say, “Darling, your body is lovely indeed, but it’s lovely because it says things that you drown out with your squawking.”

Liberté, égalité, fraternité,

Chris

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