Commentary

MLB, NFL: Where the (trans)action is

For a week now, the business of sports has had little to do with fun and games

Originally Published: August 2, 2011
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Haynesworth, Hasselbeck, Holmes, Leinart, McNabb, Orton, Kolb, Bush, Pence, Beltran, Bourn; $50 million, $40 million, $30 million, $90 million; one year, 10 years, two years, four years. Transaction overwhelmed action this week as the sports business ticker reminded us the business of sports business is still only business.

[+] EnlargeHahn, Williams, Dombrowski
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe new stars of the sports show: front-office types such as Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, right; White Sox GM Kenny Williams, center; and White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn, left.

So a word today in favor of running and jumping and kicking and throwing, a word in support of the wordless, of the physical, the primitive, the pre-verbal, the pre-contractual. A word in favor of the business of living.

The end of the NFL lockout and the arrival of the MLB trade deadline in the same week brought deal making into absolute concentration at the expense, perhaps, of the thing itself: sports. Play. Everyone, everywhere, instead scrambling to grab a bucket under a summer downpour of big league cash. There was no news but business news.

I understand that these transactions have some effect on your team's season. I understand that transactions have some effect on your fantasy league. I understand that the vampire media, of which I remain a pale and undead part, trade in trades and transactions.

I also understand that these transactions mistake The Thing Itself for Our Accounting Of The Thing. This is an error of taxonomy, of classification, much in the manner Hollywood mistakes the concept "movie" for the concept "box office."

[+] EnlargeHurd, Williams
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNFL free agents such as Bears newcomers Sam Hurd, left, and Roy Williams made headlines without catching a pass or throwing a block last week.

Not very much of this matters, except to the extent that money makes mythology nearly impossible. Business reduces everything it touches to the literal. And we come to sports, as players and fans, whether we know it or not, for the mythology. To find the reflection of our best selves. To feel ourselves move across space. For the symbolism and the beauty and the metaphor. For an expression of our humanity in the physical world.

It may be worth remembering at this moment, then, that most of us still dream of being a player before we're taught to dream of being a GM. There's a wide, deep vein of respect for business in this country, for the prosperity and opportunity it creates, just as there should be, and there's still a little of the 17th-century New York Dutch in us all. Thrifty, hardworking, eyes wide-open to the main chance.

But in America, all that noble toil brings with it a touch of the moneychanger and the snake-oil seller and the thimblerigger and the professional politician. (See also: Reid, Boehner, Obama; $1 trillion, $3 trillion, $9 trillion; 1 year, 4 years, 10 years, 20.)

If all this sounds familiar, remind yourself, "The business of business is business," a bit of self-reinforcing Zen nonsense most often attributed to Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the chairman of General Motors, way back in 1923. This being the epigram many of us confuse with "The business of America is business," which we believe to have been said by dour Calvin Coolidge, a celluloid collar wearer and former president. Except he never said it, at least according to the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation -- which, one assumes, has enough time on its hands to check these things. They have Silent Cal's variation on Industrial Age wisdom down as, "After all, the chief business of the American people is business." Which doesn't really sing, either -- but upon which you can still smell the damp wool, nickel cigar smoke and ammonia breath of Roaring '20s American rectitude.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Beltran
AP Photo/Matt SlocumWhy did the Mets ship Carlos Beltran off to the Giants? Because it's just business.

The business of business is business. If something can correctly be called the opposite of poetry, maybe this is it. Thank you, Alfred Sloan, CEO and anti-poet. And if that name still nags at you, reader, know that Mr. Sloan endowed a business program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT Sloan is named for him. And if that sounds even further familiar, it's likely because it's the home of the annual Sports Analytics Conference -- better known to many of you, thanks to our own Bill Simmons, as Dorkapalooza.

So. Sports and business. From which heroes are meant to rise. Sometimes athletes, sometimes hedge fund managers. We create our heroes out of need, once we choose up sides. (It might be worth remembering just now that the Joads were not a family of displaced investment bankers.)

Is there anything more important in America than business? Yes. Everything.

Because "It's just business" is what we say when we want to signify how little something means. When we need to excuse a moral failure or ethical lapse, when we need to be let off the hook for our nihilism or selfishness, for the worst of our churlishness and our double-dealing, for our greed and our incivility. It's just business. As if "business" were somehow separate from us, separate from the human.

Sports, no matter how much business we do, no matter how much money we rain down on the field, exist to remind us of the opposite. Sports are our gesture toward grace. Run, jump, kick, throw.

And that gesture is an absolute truth.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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