Everything from the sale of beer to sports is now affected by theatrics. However, although this may increase beer sales, in my opinion it diminishes sports. Posturing in athletic events has detracted from the event itself.
In football it isn't enough to score a touchdown; one is expected to put on a performance in the end zone. There is the Billy (White Shoes) Johnson boogie, the Wes Chandler spin-the-top routine, the Kellen Winslow dunk between the goal posts, the Drew Pearson over-the-shoulder spike, and the hundreds of attempts to throw the football through the sod.
There are the "high fives" in basketball and baseball that go on as long as commercial breaks. There is the Mike Bossy pump after a goal that has become de rigueur for every scorer in the National Hockey League. Victorious players in every league flash their index fingers before the camera to signify being No. 1. Even last-place teams that win a game do it.
Mark Gastineau of the New York Jets has started the war-dance-after-sack routine. During the bowl games, every lineman who sacked a quarterback engaged in a two-minute hand-waving, jumping, shouting display.
It isn't enough to play the game well; the reaction to success is as important as the successful act. Football and basketball players have even become cheerleaders. One wonders why they don't change their uniforms at halftime and carry pompons.
Several players, such as Gastineau and Magic Johnson, explain their antics as expressions of enthusiasm. Surely I can't argue with that. But what I don't understand are the gratuitous acts of self-indulgent drama. For example, I have seen war dances by the lineman on a team that lost a bowl game by a score of 28-0; I have seen Steve Garvey give every teammate and the bat boy a high five for a home run in the eighth inning of a game that the Dodgers won, 8-0; I have seen every member of a local basketball team flash a No. 1 sign in front of a television camera after trouncing a local opponent (neither team was in the top 20 when the game was played).
It seems to me that two things are happening in sports: players are performing for the television camera, and sportsmanship has been subordinated to gamesmanship. In the first instance, it is difficult in team sports to have a distinctive identity without doing something unusual. When television cameras are isolated on an athlete moving into the end zone or dunking a basketball, he or she has the chance to be in the spotlight. This--as every announcer suggests--is "show time."
Second, since winning is all that counts in the post-Lombardi era, showing up your opponent isn't bad. Cornerbacks make a point of gesturing at ends and flankers who had the ball jarred out of their hands by a hard tackle. Basketball players use the expression "in your face" as a way of showing off after scoring a basket against a taller opponent. Batters point at pitchers who throw close to them as if to say, "You'll get yours."
Of course, fans have followed these examples. Almost everyone in the crowd punches holes in the the sky after a touchdown. Self-appointed cheerleaders stand on dugouts with multicolored wigs, shouting obscenities at umpires who make questionable calls. Everyone is on display for the television cameras.
Not so long ago, great athletes simply doffed their cap after a home run; halfbacks handed the ball to a linesman after a touchdown. One can scarcely recall the brouhaha when Ted Williams refused to doff his cap after hitting a home run. Can you imagine how fans would have reacted if he had thrust his fist in the air after rounding the bases?
Who was more justified in saying "in your face" than Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell? Yet they didn't embarrass their opponents this way. I don't recall seeing Jim Brown doing the Twist in the end zone after one of his memorable runs.
Times have changed. Vaudeville is making a comeback, and it's not on the stage. Our playing fields have become centers for theatrics. It is difficult to distinguish between the posturing and the artistry of the game. I care too much about sports to let the showmen take the games away from the athletes, but it seems as if things have gone too far. The next thing you'll probably hear is that college linemen and basketball players have been recruited by the pros for their ability to do pas de deux.