The hockey and basketball playoffs are upon us, or upon our television screens. The baseball season gathers momentum, football teams are drafting, horses are running, sports fans are in heaven and the television set never cools off.
There is no time to talk about the Constitution, not a chance of watching the capital punishment debate, no interest in the latest flavors, the new books or the price of apples. Not when someone is, right now, on the tube, fighting to stave off elimination.
There is no time, even, to wonder why elimination must be staved off, why it can’t be warded off, beaten back, postponed, averted or outrun. The language of sports contains mysteries we will never fathom.
Another mystery is why mysteries have to be fathomed, but there is no time for that either.
There is only time to turn on the games. To do so is to risk the sneers of more cultured acquaintances, but there is an okay reason to do so, one that can be talked about at parties frequented by educated people: watching sports gives advance warning of new trends in silliness. Since society has to be continuously on guard, and since it is in the area of sports that the frontiers of silliness have traditionally been expanded, there is every reason to turn on the set.
Some of the silliness is on the field, some of it is in the stands. Close observers in the past couple of years have watched with interest the emergence of a new phenomenon—the sore winner. Unlike the sore loser, the winner has traditionally been gracious, smiling, offering sincere condolences, uttering humble platitudes to the media about how it was too bad there had to be a loser. Until recently sports fans liked the gracious winner. Just as they did not much like their losers to be bitter, they preferred their winners to be modest and quiet in victory.
No more. Now the winning home run hitter shakes his fist in the air while he circles the bases and comes out of the dugout to take a bow for the fans. The basketball player points a finger at the defensive player over whom he has just scored. The football lineman stands gleefully over the quarterback he has just thrown to the ground. The hockey goal-scorer does a gloating dance that may take as much as a minute to perform and seems to take long-
er. The bench players wave towels and incite the home crowd.
And the crowd—the crowd sings a complicated little ditty, actually the chorus from a 1969 song by a band called Steam. The words are as follows:
“Na na na na,
Na na na na,
Hey hey hey, goodbye. ”
A few years ago they began singing that song in hockey arenas when it appeared that the home team was going to win. It was a way of serenading the losers—it was a musical gloat. Sports crowds love to do what they see other sports crowds doing on television, so the song caught on. Soon after it was first heard on television, it was sung in stadiums and arenas all over North America, for losing teams of all sports.
The trick in na-na-na-na singing is to be the first one in the stadium to sing it, to give the hated opposing team the earliest possible inkling of
It would explain why studio audiences keep whooping—they have set their VCR and want to see themselves yelling
certain defeat. But na-na-na-na singers are not always cautious and often fail to have a solid sense of the outcome of a game. When, during the Montreal Expos’ home opener this year, the fans found the visiting Phillies down by two runs with one out in their half of the ninth inning, the song began.
There followed an error, a single and a three-run home run. Phils win. Na na na na, indeed.
The risk inherent in na-na-na-na singing has driven some people at the stadium to other pursuits. Watch the crowd at any televised sports event, and you will soon notice people waving in one direction while intently staring somewhere else. What this strange spectacle means is that they have located a television camera and are waving at it in the hopes it will notice them. Then they have located a television screen— perhaps on the scoreboard, perhaps in the lap of a neighbor with one of those tiny portable sets—and are watching it in order to see themselves waving at the camera. When it works, they get a good view of the back of someone’s head who
is waving and seems to be wearing a shirt similar to their own.
We can thank the invention of the video cassette recorder for the fact that we will probably be seeing more of this, rather than less, in the near future. The next time you watch a baseball game on television, take a look at the guy behind home plate who continues to wave at the camera that is located in centre field. He cannot see the camera, but he knows it is there, and he thinks it is putting his image on television.
This is only a theory, mind you, but it is a frightening thought that he has set his VCR to record the game and plans to spend the next several days playing it back in the comfort of his home, watching his image behind home plate, waving.
It is not a new thought that some people think reality is defined by what is on the small screen. It follows that their doubts about their own reality can be reduced if they can put their own image up there. “I must be real,” they think, “because that’s me right there, behind Gary Carter.”
That would explain a lot. It would explain why studio audiences keep whooping and applauding the appearance of Letterman and Carson, long after it is polite to have ceased. They have set their VCRs and want to see themselves yelling.
The same theory would explain some of those street demonstrations that seem to have little point, where people dress up in costumes that are not quite identifiable and chant things that cannot quite be understood. They are members of some organization trying to get on the news, tape it and show the tape to the board of directors.
Some of those questions in the House of Commons now become clear. So does this week’s emergency debate at city council. So do all those signs spotted in the crowd with references to biblical passages. So, when you think about it, does most of what passes for the television news on any given day. The people on the news don’t really mean any harm. They are just posing for the camera.
Think of it. Technology has made it possible for us to wave at ourselves. If our VCRs are expensive enough, we can watch ourselves waving at ourselves in slow motion. Andy Warhol was wrong. We are not stars for 15 minutes. We are stars until the tape runs out.
Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.
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