Saturday, April 14, 2007

Of Symbols and Meaning

Often we confuse symbols with their meanings. In other words, we honor the symbol, and forget what the symbol truly represents. And in the process, we naturally become 'conflicted'.

For example, every nation honors their flag. Burning the flag may be morally repulsive, but not as repulsive as burning innocents in the name of a cause, whatever that cause may be. "We had to burn the village to save it." Or something like that.

Let's consider 'Red Sox Nation'. The Boston Red Sox are a business, worth multiple hundred million dollars, with real employees, not only on the field, but front office, middle management, and lower echelon people with real lives. The Sox have debt service to carry, cash flow, public relations, and so on. The 'B' on caps, Red Sox logos on shirts, jackets, and sweatshirts inspires pride in fans, anger in some opponents' fans, and excitement in the merchandising department. Nobody would get terrifically excited if somebody burned a Red Sox jacket in effigy. Maybe marketing would even see it as free publicity.

The inevitable firestorms between players or teams that escalate (witness the Sox - Rays over the years) seldom make us recall the career ending beaning Kirby Puckett, or the devastation affecting Tony Conigliaro, Paul Blair, or others. We confuse defending 'honor' with destroying lives. "Playing the game right" takes on bizarre meanings.

Sports and business intersect far more often than we realize. The Rutgers womens' basketball team came into prominence not only because of their success, but because of the financial arrangements between the NCAA and the broadcast networks. The NCAA and its members earn hundreds of millions of dollars from the interest, and a select number of schools become celebrities. Money drives the train.

So when Don Imus took his ill-conceived verbal hatchet to the Rutgers ladies, he didn't destroy them, but rather set in motion a chain of events where sponsors withdrew their support for him. An ill-advised and ignorant juxtaposition of words destroyed a career which alcohol and drug abuse could not. Ironic, isn't it...the law of unintended consequences at work.

We all wish we could retract things we've said or written. All of us. Is Curt Schilling's opinion on global warming, US attorneys, or NAFTA any more or less worthy than mine or yours? Maybe you are a government professor or wrote a thesis on international trade.

Clearly his opinion on pitching far outweighs ours, as his credentials speak for themselves. Does he split infinitives, use the subjunctive case properly, or begin sentences too often with prepositions? Maybe we're just splitting hairs.

In other words, when we fans wax poetic on baseball, we speak first from the heart, often from limited experience, and seldom from expertise. Our expertise usually belongs somewhere more central to our experience, whatever that may be.

The questions that Imus' unraveling raise include:

  • what are the boundaries of free speech (are they moral or financial)?
  • what symmetry issues exist (if as a balding, middle-aged guy I call Imus a scarecrow Chia pet, am I out of line or just not funny)?
  • is there a limit on penance and forgiveness?
  • where does intent lie (does a tasteless joke make you a bad person?...bad people can in fact say bad things)?
  • does public radio versus pay radio (satellite broadcasting) make a difference?
  • did the 'networks' only become indignant when the advertisers withdrew?

I don't contend that Imus got a bad deal because he made a harmful comment (in the context of a career full of them), but rather that he wore neither a journalistic suit or a cowboy clown suit. Serious journalists in clown garb attract attention, and sometimes heat. He tried to be serious and a clown simultaneously, and serious words said in jest may hurt all the more.

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