The year is 2005, and reality television has finally gone too far. After shows about flatulent fake fiancées, castaways driven to eating rats, and recipients of radical facial reconstructions, I think we’ve made it to a point where we all can agree we shouldn’t have reality TV interfering. After toying with the very idea of love and blurring the line that separates man from beast, reality television (more specifically Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard) has decided to muck up the sports world. The Contender, which began airing in the spring of 2005, pits several aspiring boxers against each other to determine who is the best. The problem is, unlike all the other reality shows up to this point, there exists a very efficient non-television solution to this problem. It’s called boxing.
Shows like American Idol and Last Comic Standing appeal to us, at least in part, because they give everyone a fair shot. Rather than allow money and connections to determine who makes it to the top, these shows democratically and impartially determine a winner, while at the same time allowing us to watch the contestants struggle along the way. But that idea, at least the part about finding a winner fairly, doesn’t fit quite as well in the sports world. Sports, you see, is the only meritocracy on the planet.
Read a list of Presidents of the United States, and it looks like a Who’s Who of Anglo White Males. With two of our last three presidents having been named George Bush, there’s no pretending that it doesn’t help a little bit to come from a particular background. Now look at some of the greatest baseball players of all time. You’ve got Henry Aaron and Willie Mays (African Americans), Babe Ruth and Ted Williams (Anglo), Joe Dimaggio and Yogi Berra (Italian), Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg (Jewish), Roberto Clemente (Puerto Rican), and Juan Marichal (Dominican), not to mention the more recent insurgence of Japanese talent. Performance in baseball, like in every sport, is so transparent that those who have been given any unfair advantages will eventually be unable to compete. The cream generally rises to the top, and those who cannot compete at the highest levels can only blame their own relative lack of talent or effort. They can’t attribute their failure, if you want to call it that, to politics or preferential treatment. Conversely, the people who are competing at the top levels of sport are truly the best, and you won’t find an undeserving friend or family member, as you may in the world of entertainment, politics, or business.
Unlike other endeavors, sports invites open competition at every level. Every school that has a sports program, at any level, has open tryouts to ensure that no talents are falling through the cracks. And for late bloomers, major sports leagues hold tryouts as well. The popular film The Rookie told the true story of how possible it is for truly talented and dedicated individuals to break through. Imagine a similar film premise in which a 40-year-old schoolteacher discovers a hidden talent for investment banking. Never mind that it would be boring as hell—the real problem a film like that would have is that someone hoping to make it as a banker would need a business school background and some connections in addition to his talent. In sports, it’s realistic to expect talent alone to take you to the top.
Let’s look at boxing, which not only has brought its best to the top but has also been a vehicle for upward mobility and allowed minority groups to flourish in other areas. At the beginning of the 20th century, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and African-American individuals were artificially held apart from America’s best jobs and highest levels of society. Boxers like John L. Sullivan, Rocky Marciano, Barney Ross, and Joe Louis demonstrated that sports, with its emphasis on pure performance and the transparency of its results, will allow top individuals to rise much faster than other areas of society. Sports can even point out the lunacy of contrived reasons for keeping people down (think Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics) and open up professional jobs and community acceptance to disadvantaged races.
Given the history that sports has for fostering talent, how should we look at a show like The Contender? It can’t be about finding the next heavyweight champion in the same way that American Idol is about finding the next pop star. Boxing has far better mechanisms for finding talent than a television show. But a network television show, even if it doesn’t produce a legitimate champion, can get people thinking about boxing the way Pay-Per-View (limited viewership) and the Olympics (once every four years) cannot. If that’s the case, then the real legacy of The Contender will not be a successful boxing career for its winner but will instead be the numerous youngsters who have a seed planted in their minds about boxing as an outlet for their talents.
Sylvester Stallone knows something about how a pseudo-sports spectacle can result in real sports outcomes. His film Rocky, about a boxer’s struggle against incredible odds, has inspired real athletes to persevere through their own struggles. Boxing is so often the setting for the quintessential sports story because it is sports stripped down to its basics—a man, his skills, and his will to win. The beautiful thing about Rocky or any other sports story is that that’s all it takes, and the beautiful thing about sports is that the same stories are being told in real life every day, with or without the help of “reality” TV.