The End of Empathy with Athletes

By Paul Grossinger

My grandmother likes to tell a story.  As a kid, my father used to practice wrestling moves, imagining himself as a professional wrestler.  Considering my father was a good high school athlete and wrestling was a grunge, near underground sport in the 1970s, he can't have felt too far off.

Yesterday, I was at the local YMCA, bricking hoops.  With every miss, I tried to imagine myself as a professional athlete and, with every brick, that image slipped further and further away.

Athletes today are so gifted, so well trained, and so specialized that they share little in common with the fans who want to emulate them.  They sometimes seem more like aliens then like real people.

Consider the case of basketball.  Grantland recently did a piece on the evolution of NBA team travel, from buses in the 1950s to private jets today.  In the 1950s, with basketball played by a bunch of mid-6 foot white guys trudging from game to game on a coach bus, fans can't have felt that far away from their idols. After all, their size, their looks, their income, their very lives just were not that different.

Not anymore.  Today, I can no more imagine myself as Kobe Bryant then I can imagine myself as a Martian.

Los Angeles Lakers Shooting Guard Kobe Bryant
Apr 10, 2013; Portland, OR, USA: Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) steps back from Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) at the Rose Garden. Photo courtesy by Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports.

About the closest I can come is imagining myself as John Scheyer, the Duke standout who grew up in Chicagoland with me and is on the NBA fringes.

I wonder: how does that massive gulf between fans and athlete change how we relate to sports?  Does it reduce fan loyalty – or enhance it?  Does it make the game more compelling – must watch TV in its alien perfection – or less so as it slips further and further away from anything we can relate to?

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