The American Dream: Sports and Music (Web Exclusive)

Why do sports and music seem to thrive during even the worst economic downturns? Why do those that have the least among us sometimes turn out to be the most zealous fans, shelling out meager paychecks to watch their baseball team compete for the pennant or their favorite childhood musician play the songs they’ve known since their youth?

Sports and music have long been not only a fun activity for many but a refuge for those going through tough financial straits, making these industries nearly recession-proof. (The combination of rising ticket prices and the sheer length of the most recent recession may have caused a more significant dip in revenue for sporting events and concerts than in years past, but actual loss has yet to be determined.)  What is it about athletics and songs that makes them so attractive to people stuck in the mires of poverty?

Sports, at their most basic level, can provide an escape – a distraction from the reality of life, sustaining us in times of adversity. They are entertainment, giving us something to cheer for. They are clear cut, with distinct winners and losers, rules that define the game, and an even playing field that depends not on social advantages but on skill. In a country so focused on maintaining a meritocracy but so often forced to confront its deep inequities and injustices, sporting events are a chance to momentarily forget these painful realities. Sports give us something outside ourselves to believe in: our favorite players will make that basket, get that first down, hit that ball over the wall in deep center field; this will be our team’s year. We can bask in the glory of the athletes, claiming a tiny piece in their victories – it must have been the lucky shirt, the crossed fingers, the impeccably timed cheering. They are the conflation of the personal with the public, a success over which we have no control but which we always trust will someday come. Sports give us hope.

While it can also be a chance to forget pain, music – and especially the blues – provides an opportunity to express pain, to acknowledge hardship. Born in times of intense suffering, the blues were first performed by African Americans – many of whom were ex-slaves or the children of slaves – as a reflection of their experiences in the Jim Crow South. It is music about heartbreak and adversity. The idea of music as a way to deal with anguish has continued up to the present day, though the pain in question now is much more likely to be a recent breakup than tales of severe poverty. For any kind of musician, songs are a way not only to express the trials of life, but to share pain with a greater community. For a listener, music is a way to understand that many sorrows are shared, even universal – whether or not a song speaks directly to any particular grief. Music gives us empathy. 

In a world that can feel increasingly isolating, both sports and music can be a collective experience. Games and concerts give us the chance to have a defined community for a period of time, whether it be the people dressed in a specific color in the stadium stands or the ones mouthing the lyrics to the same song at a concert. Especially in the days before radios and televisions populated almost every household (or for those that don’t have such luxuries even today), sports and music are still a truly collective activity for those that can’t afford a ticket to the game itself but crowd instead onto stools and into booths at the corner restaurant or local bar. In any form, sports and music both afford an opportunity to feel less alone in the world.

Sports and music also inspire their own particular brand of the American Dream – the “rags to riches” story. Although these cases are incredibly, unbelievably, inconceivably rare, there is the occasional athlete or musician who is recognized for their talent, plucked from poverty, and catapulted to stardom and wealth. These stories are well-publicized enough that most of us buy into the hero myth, believing that if there is hope for someone to hit the jackpot doing what they love, there must be hope for us all. For a modern day hero story, look no further than the influx of talented young Cuban baseball players drafted to Major League Baseball in recent years—most of whom needed not only extreme talent but also the bravery to illegally defect, including Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A’s ($36 million dollar four year contract, winner of the 2013 Home Run Derby), Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers ($42 million seven year contract, runner up for 2013 American League rookie of the year), and Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins ($30.25 million six year contract, winner of 2013 AL rookie of the year).

21 year old Fernandez’s journey is particularly remarkable – he finally made it to the U.S. after four attempts involving jail time after being caught and a harrowing boat ride in which his mother was swept overboard and Fernandez leapt into the ocean to save her. His story and others like it show that talent and perseverance can pay off in the extreme, and give fans courage to believe that maybe their lives also have the possibility for more.

Sports and music inspire us. For the down and out among us, they offer a rare chance to leave troubles behind and believe for a time that the world is a good, fair, sometimes disappointing but ultimately hopeful place.

Photos:

Top left: Pittsburgh's Crawford Grill in the Hill District was one of the most vibrant jazz clubs in the country in the 1930s and 40s. Jazz music is closely related to the blues. 

Bottom: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins