One of the odder buildings on the BYU campus is the Monte L. Bean museum. It’s up on the north ridge overlooking campus, just east of the Marriott Center, and it provides popular daytime activities for families with small children. Monte L. Bean was a successful LDS businessman, whose favorite leisure activity was big game hunting. In 1978, he built a museum to display all the animals he’d killed. The collection has since expanded, and has a legitimate educational purpose; lots of life sciences exhibits, plus classrooms and labs. But for little kids, the cool part is seeing all the lions and tigers and bears. And, you know, giraffes, gazelles. There’s even a Liger. Plus, of course, it has a very cool, kid-oriented, gift shop.
I got to thinking about the Bean museum as I read about one of the biggest stories in the news these days, the American dentist who shot and killed Cecil the lion, and his subsequent flaying on social media. My immediate reaction was the same as most people’s. I thought that what this hunter did was contemptible, and I wished him ill. On the other hand, I just read Jon Ronson’s terrific new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about the way social media can absolutely crucify ordinary people who do dumb/wrong/shameful things, and thought this dentist’s story would make a perfect case study for this new phenomenon. Disproportionate public humiliations, the internet version of putting someone in the stocks or sewing a scarlet A to their clothing. And so possibly we should all cut this dentist a little (very little) slack? Like, maybe, cool it on the death threats?
But then, I got to thinking about big game hunting itself, the practice of going on a safari to Africa and shooting different sorts of wild animals. Or, like, bighorn sheep from helicopters. That kind of thing. Like the stuff Monte L. Bean apparently was into. And of course, I totally get how horrifically hypocritical it is for us all to get all excited about Cecil the lion. When you consider the wholesale slaughter of other intelligent mammals that make up most of the protein in our American diets, outrage over one dude shooting a lion seems pretty ridiculous. Cows, pigs, chickens, anyone? We’re bothered by the death of Cecil the lion, but quite unperturbed by the deaths of Bessie, Wilbur, or (Chicken) Little. I don’t hunt, never have and never will, but I freely admit that my objections to hunting are aesthetic, not moral. I like my meat wrapped in cellophane, and I’d rather not think about how the specific steps that got it to the store. I even wrote an anti-slaughterhouse play. And, driving home from the theater, opening night, stopped at a MacDonald’s. Not proud of my hypocrisy, but I do at least admit to it.
So granted, our objections to big game hunting are, to a very large degree, emotional and sentimental. We like lions, because they’re awesome to look at (in nature documentaries), and because we liked The Lion King as kids. We like otters and dolphins and pandas, and don’t like weasels and rats and three-toed sloths. I remember the movie March of the Penguins and how scary it was, to see those cute little penguins under deadly attack from the vicious leopard seals. But leopard seals are just trying to survive too, and have every bit as much right to dinner as penguins do. And baby seals are cute, too.
But here’s my larger point: is big game hunting on its way out as a sport? It doesn’t matter if the reasons aren’t rationally defensible; emotions matter, and it seems to me that this is a sport that fewer and fewer people are willing to defend. That happened with fox hunting, for example. It’s been illegal in the UK since 2005. Well, there was a time when it was a very popular sport. How many British novels had fox hunting scenes, how many TV shows and movies, how many popular depictions of whooping aristocrats riding in hot pursuit of foxes. “The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible,” Oscar Wilde called it, to the scandalized titters of his largely aristocratic audiences. But nowadays, it’s seen as barbaric. An uncivilized sporting relic; the kind of thing decent people just don’t allow. Well, does the case of Dr. Palmer DDS v. Cecil Felidae Leo suggest a similar social dynamic? Is big game hunting just not cool anymore?
Or other once-popular sports? What about team sports? I am on record as suggesting that American football may well be a sport that’s dying. The long-term health effects from brain injuries have increasingly led some of the best young professional players in the NFL to decide the risk isn’t worth the money. And the reaction from the players who do keep playing is even more interesting. When 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired after a very successful rookie season, the reaction from his teammates was to applaud him for his courage, with the subtext ‘I wish I could afford to do that.’ (And shortly thereafter, his teammate Anthony Davis did the same, retired mid-career).
I would argue that professional boxing might be the next major sport to go. It’s certainly lost a lot of fans; it’s nowhere near as popular as it once was. I’m not a boxing fan, and never have been, but when I was a kid, I certainly knew who the heavyweight champion of the world was. Everyone did. It was a big deal; star boxers were major celebrities. Not anymore; I couldn’t name three pro boxers anymore, and I have no idea who the heavyweight champion is. I think maybe he’s European. But I think mismanagement and corruption have as much to do with boxing’s decline, as much or more than any collective distaste over the atavistic violence of the sport. After all, mixed martial arts seems to be thriving. I don’t get that either, but it does seem to be a thing.
What about auto racing? NASCAR’s numbers are down, and the Indianapolis 500 has seen a ratings slump. I have seen just enough auto racing in my lifetime to consider it the smelliest, loudest, boringest sport ever created. But if movies are any indication, there’s still something thrilling about watching fast cars driving really fast. It’s possible that climate change may force a change in auto sports, but for now, they remain fairly popular.
Soccer’s doing well, and should; it’s one exciting sport. Baseball remains the favored sport for those of us with contemplative, Zen-state powers of concentration. Basketball is simply beautiful. Big game hunting may be gone from the planet in twenty years, and good riddance. What sport might be next to go?