- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2011

You’ve got the NFL lockout. You’ve got the Jim Tressel mess at Ohio State. You’ve got Lance Armstrong’s former cycling teammates calling him a doper. Fun athletic times we live in. And it’s not like the last month has been much different from the one before it.

Do you ever wonder whether, at some point, sports fans will simply say: Enough! Actually, let me rephrase that: Can you imagine a time when fans get so fed up with the cheating, the egos, the labor squabbles and all the rest (read: $50 to park) that they turn from real sports to virtual sports? That they become more interested in digital athletes romping across their computer screens than in flesh-and-blood ones?

Call me crazy, a shrieking loon, but I’m finding it easier and easier to picture that kind of world — not in my lifetime, perhaps, but certainly before a meteor strikes the planet. We’ve been told since the days of “Wide World of Sports” that there’s something irresistible about “the human drama of athletic competition.” But what if that “human drama” has too much drama - too much on-field silliness, too much off-field misbehavior … and a seemingly endless succession of scandals? What if sports figures, for all their United Way commercials, cease being admirable or even particularly likeable? Might that not prompt fans to seek alternative thrills?

While channel-surfing the other night, I caught a few minutes of an overlooked 2002 movie, “S1m0ne.” It’s about a producer who inserts a digital actress into his film after his high-maintenance star walks off the set. The computer-generated actress is so realistic that viewers think she actually exists - and “Simone” becomes a worldwide phenomenon.

Why couldn’t that happen in sports? Why couldn’t fans become attached to an athlete made up of 1’s and 0’s instead of muscles — an athlete who did wondrous things on the playing field and, better still, never got arrested for spousal battery? And just think: Cities wouldn’t have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on stadiums anymore. They could put the money into schools or social programs (or just leave it in the taxpayer’s pocket).

Farfetched? Not from what I can see. Look at the popularity of a game like “Madden NFL.” As ESPN.com’s Patrick Hruby notes: “as many as 2 million copies [have been sold] in a single week, 85 million copies since the game’s inception and more than $3 billion in total revenue. You can chart the game’s ascent, shoulder to shoulder, alongside the $20 billion-a-year video game industry, which is either co-opting Hollywood (see “Tomb Raider” and “Prince of Persia”) or topping it (opening-week gross of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”: $550 million; “The Dark Knight”: $204 million).

An entire generation has grown up with Xbox, PlayStation and the CD-ROM, not to mention the Wii. As our waistlines have expanded and our physical ambitions waned, we’ve become a nation of virtual athletes and make-believe coaches and general managers. Who’s to say that, with improved technology, Madden 2099 won’t be every bit as exciting and engrossing as the real thing - if not more so? And once you have that, why would you need the real thing?

It’s just the direction civilization is heading in, isn’t it? They give an Oscar now for Best Animated Feature. They nominate “Up” and “Toy Story 3” for Best Picture. They make movies like “Avatar” and “300.” More and more, we’re finding entertainment in virtual reality and alternate universes. Escapism run amok? I’ll let the psychologists sort that one out. But it’s hard to miss the trend.

With so many fans playing fantasy football, how long will it be before they’re watching fantasy football - and casting electronic ballots for the MVP Award (Most Valuable Pixel). It would have its attractions, you have to admit. No personal seat licenses. No game-day traffic jams. No road rage incidents involving your team’s highest-paid player. (Unless, of course, they were written into the computer program.) Fans might even be able to put themselves in at free safety and bat down a pass. Who knows what the future will bring?

Let’s face it, nothing is forever. If Hollywood can imagine a world in which Kevin Costner has gills, then I can imagine one - post-NFL lockout, post-Jim Tressel, post-Lance Armstrong — in which big-time sports exist only on a screen. “The human drama of athletic competition” … without the humans.

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