The Significance of Herb Brooks

A certain event this past week made me think about the amazing multitude of small, seemingly insignificant, ways in which the State manipulates us mentally to its enduring advantage.

The event: 'Herb Brooks,' who coached the American hockey team which improbably won the 1980 Olympic gold medal in Lake Placid , died Monday in an automobile accident. Seems simple and straightforward enough. Seems relatively insignificant. But this objective fact contains within it several significant concepts and at least one significant question.

Note: I've placed this man's names in quotes to emphasize the fact that, like the vast majority of people familiar with that name, I did not know him personally. I, like most of you, know only his media image: his name, his photograph, some of the teams he coached in his lifetime. Like most of you, I've seen him only on television and read about him in newspapers and online, and we must remember that nothing I write here has anything to do with him personally or with the reality of that man's life but only with this media image. My thoughts here concern not Herb Brooks the man but ' Herb Brooks ' the idea.

First significant concept: sports and its prominence in the minds of American men. After all, what occupies them more than sports? The average local news broadcast consists of three parts: news, weather, and sports. Most men, and many women, can recite on command all the teams in the particular sports he or she favors. On weekends, the televisions networks specialize in sports, especially on Sunday afternoons when, on an average summer day, for instance, you can watch golf or auto racing or baseball. Everyday, radio features call-in shows in which men discuss various aspects of various sports as if 1) they know something substantial and interesting about it, and 2) their discussion actually mattered.

We should not find this surprising, of course, given the nature of men and what modern society has done to that nature. Technology has come close to eliminating the need for men whatsoever. Society no longer needs men's physical strength. Women can get Power, protection, and financial support for their children from the State. And with the technological development of cloning, soon not even a man's sperm will have any value.

As a result, most modern American men lack any sense either of personal power or of independence, partly because so few of them work for themselves or create their own lives in any tangible way. Accepting modern society means, for most men, almost total dependence. It means working for, and thus submitting to, someone else. Wendell Berry writes in his essay Feminism, the Body, and the Machine that 'most men are now entirely accustomed to obeying and currying the favor of their bosses . . . . They do as they are told. They are more complaisant than most housewives have been. Their characters combine feudal submissiveness with modern helplessness. They have accepted almost without protest, and often with relief, their dispossession of any usable property and, with that, their loss of economic independence and their consequent subordination to bosses. They have submitted to the destruction of the household economy and thus of the household, to the loss of home employment and self-employment, to the disintegration of families and communities, to the desecration and pillage of their country, and they have continued abjectly to believe, obey, and vote for the people who have most eagerly abetted this ruin and who have most profited from it. These men, moreover, are helpless to do anything for themselves or anyone else without money, and so for money they do whatever they are told. They know their ability to be useful is precisely defined by their willingness to be somebody else's tool. Is it any wonder that they talk tough and worship athletes . . . ?'

Lewis Mumford writes of this phenomenon of sports and its relation to the State in his 1934 book Technics and Civilization. 'There is within modern civilization,' he says, 'a whole series of compensatory functions that . . . only serve to stabilize the existing state ' and finally they become part of the very regimentation they exist to combat. The chief of these institutions is perhaps mass-sports' (p. 303). Sports heroes, he says, represent 'virility, courage, gameness, those talents in exercising and commanding the body which have so small a part in the new mechanical regimen' (p. 306). The sports hero 'is handsomely paid for his efforts, as well as being rewarded by praise and publicity, and he thus further restores to sport its connection with the very commercialized existence from which it is supposed to provide relief ' restores it and thereby sanctifies it.' As a result, sport, 'which began originally, perhaps, as a spontaneous reaction against the machine, has become one of the mass duties of the machine age. It is part of that regimentation of life ' for the sake of private profits or nationalistic exploit ' from which its excitement provides a temporary and only a superficial release' (p. 307).

Second significant concept: television. Very few people actually attended that single game in February 1980 that turned Herb Brooks into 'Herb Brooks.' The Olympic Center had a mere 6,000 seats. And every one of those 6,000 people who actually, physically, sat in that Olympic Center that day (it began at 5 PM Eastern time) saw, in a very real way, a different hockey game. They each literally had a different point of view, a different angle, a different take on the game. They each saw and heard different things and then interpreted them in their own unique and individual ways.

Everyone else saw it on television. Ah, television ' the great homogenizer: the device that Americans love beyond all others, that injects our waiting, willing, empty and needy brains with requisite images of power and plenty, of triumph and joy. These millions saw it on tape in prime time (providing, therefore, no suspense, since people knew before hand that the American team had won). Further, they all saw it from the same point of view, from the same angle and received the same take on the game ' as well as the same commercials). They all listened (some more attentively than others, of course) to the same commentary, a feature wonderfully lacking when you attend a game in person and have to depend on your own devices, given by a single individual of the thousands who attended ' given by a highly paid and well-known employee of a major commercial television network. They all heard his now-famous game ending cry, 'Do you believe in miracles?' which apparently came from a Fleetwood Mac song recently popular (had this game taken place ten years earlier, the announcer's media-savvy script might well have read 'Do you believe in magic?' after the Lovin' Spoonful's hit song). They all saw the crowd waving American flags and chanting ' USA , USA !' And they all saw, lovingly and lingeringly highlighted in close-up at the end of the game, the image of Team USA 's goalie wrapped in one of those flags, looking in the stands for his father.

For the vast majority of Americans, then, this hockey game was just another image implanted by television and subsidized by its commercial sponsors. We have to keep in mind when we think about television that those images have no objective reality for the viewers. For those who watched on television, that hockey game had as much objective, tangible reality as a rerun of I Love Lucy. Just like Lucy, and just like her husband Ricky and their friends Fred and Ethel, that game exists in our minds, in our inner world ' a world now partly created and mostly controlled by the media and by the corporate interests which operate them. It exists in essentially irrelevant memories created by Power, and solely for their benefit.

Neil Postman traces the beginning of this irrelevant inner world to the rise of the telegraph in the early 1800s, and I have written of it myself, quoting Postman's work, in an earlier essay. Postman explains in Amusing Ourselves to Death how the telegraph 'made a three-pronged attack on typography's definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence' (p. 65). Before the telegraph, says Postman, 'the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What people knew about had action-value. In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost' (p. 69).

Third significant concept: patriotism, which has a very tight and powerful connection to the modern American concept of sports. Every four years, the State and their lackeys in the media do their best to connect the performance of the State's athletes in the Olympic Games with the State itself. Noam Chomsky talks in several instances about a realization he had in high school:

'I suppose that's also one of the basic functions (sports) serves in the society in general: it occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. In fact, I presume that's part of the reason why spectator sports are supported to the degree they are by the dominant institutions.

'I remember very well in high school having . . . asking myself, why do I care if my high school football team wins? I don't know anybody on the team. They don't know me. I wouldn't know what to say to them if I met them. Why do I care? Why do I get all excited if the football team wins and all downcast if it loses?

'. . . the point is, this sense of irrational loyalty to some sort of meaningless community is training for subordination to power . . . . All of this stuff builds up extremely anti-social aspects of human psychology . . . emphasized, and exaggerated, and brought out by spectator sports: irrational competition, irrational loyalty to power systems, passive acquiescence to quite awful values, really. In fact, it's hard to imagine anything that contributes more fundamentally to authoritarian attitudes than this does . . . . So if you look at the whole phenomenon, it seems to me that it plays quite a substantial social role.'

Sports, then, combines with television to implant in the inner mind a connection between the game, the players, and the State. This becomes even stronger with an Olympic contest pitting one 'nation' against another because this allows, as happened at Lake Placid during that game in 1980, the home crowd to chant 'USA, USA' and wave American flags from the stands.

Significant question: why, exactly, is this such news? The media reports it the way it has because of its symbolic usefulness to the State (not that they necessarily think of it in those terms). It gives the State yet another opportunity to impress upon the people its own overriding importance, and the incessant succession of these moments, this never-ending drumbeat, helps implant the idea of the State, of the 'nation,' of 'the United States of America,' themselves all mere concepts and constructs of the inner mind, so firmly and powerfully in the minds of the public. The media tells us that the victory of that hockey team more than 20 years ago was so much more that a mere game ' they tell us that it represented a victory over the dreaded Soviet Union, our great enemy. They tell us that it gave us hope again, that it made us all believe in miracles, that it brought us together. It makes us hear the chanting crowd, see again the goalie wrapped in the flag looking for his father, feel again the pride of improbable victory over all odds. All these ideas, all these concepts and interpretations, come to us, like the game itself, from the State's lackeys in the media, whose well-compensated assignment, as ever, is simply to say the right thing so that we'll think and thus do the right thing.

The State doesn't primarily bind people to it with significant major events like wars and elections; the State primarily binds people to it with insignificant minor events like sports and television because once it has you in all those little mindless things, it will have you in the big mindful ones, too.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.