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Monday, March 11, 2013
To paraphrase former President Eisenhower, “Beware the sports video board industrial complex.” The Cold War arms race of Ike’s time has devolved into the athletics arms race of college sports today.
George Orwell wrote that “serious sport is war minus the shooting.” And what could be more serious than replaying every pass, punt and punch on the chalked battlefield with state-of-the-art resolution designed to expedite a new phase in human evolution: increased RAM capacity of the retina.
The casus belli of this digital power struggle was best summarized by Tom Gabbard, Virginia Tech’s associate director of athletics for internal affairs, regarding the recently announced plan to install the eighth-largest video board of the land in Lane Stadium: “It’s a lot of keeping up with the Joneses. And as you know, this business is many times a facility battle on who has got the greatest, latest.”
I imagine we’ll be reminded of this new virtual reality every time we turn our hungry gaze toward the pixelated paradise in the sky, relieving us of the stress of all that “static stuff,” Gabbard assures us, cluttering the current and embarrassingly market-challenged screen, not to mention the eye-strain of following muscle-swollen players vying for a spot on ESPN’s top 10 “blow up” hits of the week from the cheap seats.
But if Tech is serious about keeping pace in the tech race, it needs to follow the example of University of Maryland, which recently announced it will be providing every Terp athlete with an iPad. Such largesse, school officials claim, will help athletes fulfill their “educational mission” while on midweek road trips to Nebraska after they join the Big Ten next year, a defection motivated by need for increased conference revenue-sharing to bail out an athletic department too broke to buy its own Big Board.
Such investments create opportunity for even more significant innovation in the educational and cultural mission of sports. Why not provide iPads to all college football players, who then could earn real academic credit in computer science by creating avatars whose virtual performances would be displayed on the stadium Big Board and streamed into the homes of fans who couldn’t afford to attend the games? Think of the advantages: increased fan participation and thus revenue through cable fees; fewer serious player injuries (carpel tunnel syndrome replacing torn ACL’s); no bitter standoffs between campus conservationists and athletic department developers. Players need never leave the locker room, and fans need never leave their homes. (Which should relieve Hokie fan “Eagle,” who posted the following on the blog of Roanoke Times reporter Andy Bitter: “I just hope the BIG BOARD will show where the cheapest gas station is.”)
Convert Lane Stadium to Lane Hall, a research lab for performance-enhancement technology, a rising field that would obviate the need for performance-enhancing drugs.
If the popularity of cinematic blood-fests filling movie theaters is any indication, this advance in high-def simulation won’t prove any less appealing to sports fans than the real thing. Think of it as war minus the concussions and HGH supplements.
If in fact the chief business of college athletics is Jones-jumping, then Gabbard and his fellow internal affairs guardians should heed the plight of the biggest Jones of them all, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose claim to the Biggest Board in the country and fourth-largest in the world has already been downsized by Charlotte Motor Speedway, which currently sports the world’s largest one — last time I checked, anyway.
Start planning now for the next campaign in digital supremacy. Forget converting Lane Stadium into a research facility; instead, tear down the entire structure and replace it with a mammoth four-sided board whose pulsing glow would illuminate the commonwealth from one end of Interstate 81 to the other, making it the world’s largest drive-by theater, projecting timeless images of that which gives meaning to our lives: “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” that enduring mantra coined by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” when sport-as-entertainment cast its therapeutic spell from the confines of small-screen TV. It boggles the imagination to comprehend how our collective psyche survived on such meager, visual sustenance.
If this edifice to electronic ecstasy should blow a fuse and knock out the grid, leaving us in the dark, we can always replay memories from our favorite sporting events on our own internal hard drives — assuming they haven’t been wiped clean by the Big Board.
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