November 14, 2009


I was in an antiques store today. Actually, an antiques mall. It's just a few miles from where I live, and I drive by it every day on the way to work. I knew eventually I'd have to stop in and look at all their old garbage. So today I did. It's a giant warehouse, and out front is a sign that says, "Invest in your future with the past. Buy Antiques." Whether or not antiques, specifically their antiques, are a sound investment, I can't tell you. But they are neat.

When there is nothing else on TV (and sometimes when there is something else on TV) I will watch Antiques Roadshow and sit in awe as some expert with a bowtie gives a detailed history of Grandma's shampoo bottle. Seriously, I don't know how they know these things. And I'm not sure I want to. I just find it all really really interesting when an object has been passed down by so many people, and outlived them, and accumulated bits and pieces of their life in every scratch, stain, and repair. I have always loved stuff that survived the past, miraculously escaping the permanent, mysterious history of the world, not to die on some scrap heap or landfill but instead to continue serving its purpose long beyond the intention or awareness of its creator.

Which brings me to the RC Cola cans. There was no shortage of cool stuff to stare at and not buy - books better than a century old, coins, glassware, political pins, world war two posters - and RC Cola cans from the 70s. (How do you like that, Mom and Dad? Stuff from the 70s is now antique.) There was a shelf full of them, and each one had the picture and stats of a pro Football or Baseball player. They were basically sportscards that were once filled with soda pop. One had Rollie Fingers on it. And I had never seen anything like that before, so I thought: What an incredible idea! They should do this today! They'd be a hit; collectors would buy 'em up.

Except. Except. I don't think people would be all that interested.

As I imagined a Pepsi can emblazened with the athletic accomplishments of Ledanian Tomlinson and Derek Jeter, I realized that most people probably wouldn't really care. I guess I have this notion that athletes were once heroes, untouchable celebrities from afar who people encountered only occasionally through televised games and nightly newspaper articles and, for the very lucky, once and a while from the stands at a stadium. But people today, I guess, don't see athletes that way anymore.

And there's a paradox in that. Because they get more press than ever and make unbelievable amounts of money, and sports marketing is as big as ever. If anything, they should be far more significant today than ever before. But I can't convince myself that that's the case. I don't think the majority of the population really cares about them at all. Certainly not enough to warrant some marketing company donating an entire line of soda cans to them. People who really want to can go out and get their jersey or an 8x10 glossy or just about anything with their likeness on it. For the diehard sports fan, they're still heroes.

But for everybody else, they aren't. Professional athletes are just people who've devoted their life to getting really really good at a game. They spent their time in the classroom figuring out how to run routes and hit knuckleballs. Maybe they don't really need to be heroes. Maybe they never were. Maybe it's the internet, or too many athlete scandals, or celebrity culture as a whole.

So I guess my question/point is this: It worked to put them on soda cans in the 70s, and it probably wouldn't today. Have professional athletes slipped in public standing from where (I think) they once were, or were they ever really there in the first place?

This is what I do know: Tomorrow, I'm going to spend the day watching football because I still really like it. And next summer, I'm going to spend too much money on baseball tickets, and I'll listen to every game on the radio that I can. So, though the athletes themselves might not be terribly important, I sure enjoy watching them.