Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Nathan could be worse

Posted by digglahhh on 14 July 2007

I’m not often at a loss for words, but certain things set off so many sociological censors at once that I get sent into overload and find it difficult to process and document my interpretation of what exactly is going on. I most recently had one of those moments on July 4th, watching the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. I can’t guarantee coherence as I try to express my feelings here, but I shall try my best.

First of all, it is aired on ESPN. What the fuck is that? I guess that’s the “E” for “Entertainment” portion of its abbreviation. If so, whatever. But then, somebody should tell the Sportscenter anchors that the network’s feeble entertainment attempts have been covered and they can kill the Last Comic Standing auditions and just let me know if J.J. Hardy is going to turn back into a pumpkin anytime soon. Still, even the “entertainment” must be required to be at least as close to a sport as poker is, right? How far removed is a hot dog eating contest from a farting contest? Would they air one of those on ESPN as well? The participants actually view themselves as athletes, as I understand. I’m really trying to limit how many times I say, “what the fuck?” in this piece, but that is asking a lot of restraint given this topic.

Okay, whew, that’s one rant down – the least important one. The subject of what is a sport, what is a game, and what is just a competition is an incredibly interesting discussion, but it’s not all that important sociologically. Let’s get to the more disturbing aspects of this event.

The hour of coverage began with an aerial shot of the crowd. There were thousands of people there. It was absolutely ridiculous. Why would somebody spend one of the few Federal holidays standing under the brutally hot sun, squinting to watch a crew of gastrointestinal anomalies cram their faces with cylindrical beef byproducts from two and a half blocks away?

Onto the depressing symbolism and deconstruction of the event. First, I want to preface this by saying that I’ve always found displays of decadence that use food to be particularly egregious, and, on a certain level, very offensive. Food is the basic unit of sustenance. I often think about how we use food as decorative garnish for other foods and find it quite curious. Last time Meta and I went for dinner, I posed the question of whether it is ethical, apart from being socially acceptable, to bring a child to a nice restaurant.

The hot dog eating contest on July 4th is ironic, or disturbingly a propos on many levels. For starters, according to the CDC, 65% of our population is overweight or obese. Our country clearly has a problem in this regard, and on a day on which we are supposed to be honoring our nation, we are indulging in its problems – in a far more grandiose and blatant fashion than simply stuffing yourself at a barbeque, which at least doesn’t have thousands of onlookers.

In a broader sense, this competition is reflective of so many more of our ugly values. Our disease of conspicuous consumption applies as much to dollar sign as to the waistline. The general international interpretation of American displays of wealth, power, and machismo is that they are crass and childish – two words that aptly describe a nationally televised hot dog eating contest, and a nation that watches it.

Absurd gender identities are at play as well. There is no doubt that a contributing factor to our ballooning of men’s waistlines is the conflation of a (destructively) large appetite with “manliness.” This unrefined image of savage, pseudo-manhood is celebrated as the competitors (all male, except one) gorge themselves.

This event is the apotheosis of our reverence for tasteless and destructive celebrations of excess. The fact that an event like this can gain the traction to solidify itself as an Independence Day tradition is disgusting and disappointing.

I’m hoping that the readership can advance these ideas, or contribute their own, as I find it difficult to fully express why the relationship between Independence Day and the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is so disturbing. Am I the only one who feels this way?

Before I officially solicit any responses, allow me to make two disclaimers. One, I am not a vegan or vegetarian. Admittedly, a fruit salad eating contest would be less disgusting to me, but much of that is due to how much less symbolic value it has than the malt liquor of meat, the hot dog.

Two, I am not opposed to low culture, or even to unhealthy behavior in a competitive form. Most of my friends are in their late twenties to early thirties, well removed from college, and we still routinely play drinking games. Full disclosure: about three months ago, a long night of drinking and cards turned into a three-way White Castle eat-off. (I was not involved in the contest.) My offense is taken at the nexus of the hot dog eating contest, Fourth of July, avid bystanders, and a national television network. This is not a homemade video of a keg stand posted on You Tube. This is competitive artery clogging, recognized and promoted as sport, broadcast on ESPN and marketed as all-American.

8 Responses to “Nathan could be worse”

  1. ClaireDePlume said

    First of all, a hot dog eating contest is visual where a farting contest is not. Let’s save farting competitions for radio where the median is more conducive to the message.

    If we are offended by displays of our own societal greed, then why do we pay people to play games and pay them generously? I have often wondered if scientists working on a cure for all that ails the human physical condition might draw crowds paying big bucks too? But then what would those suddenly unemployed telemarketers looking for donations do? How would people assuage their selfish guilt if not by throwing money at socially deemed worthy causes? What would we do with our spare time and our shriveling spare tires? Why then have scientists brainstorming when we can watch – from pigeon eye views – burly macho men head butting one another or ramming hockey sticks up each other’s asses? I axe youse all. What would we do if we behaved decently for dawg’s sake?

    Omnivorous team players serving their country’s duty to hot dogs, pies, brute force and ignorance… Now that’s a national pledge of societal allegiance.

  2. digglahhh said

    You aren’t lumping hot dog eating contests and baseball games in the same category, are you? Sports, and the act of playing them, have plenty of positives to offer society – both physically and socially. Hot dog eating contests don’t have any of those positives.

    And, as far as “paying them generously,” we pay them no more generously than we pay the top .0001% of talent in just about any other field. Several of those fields (ad execs, corporate lawyers, etc.) are harder to justify on the basis of their societal value than athletics. And of course there’s the question of the alternative. Would you rather the owners just pocket the cash?

    I think you are creating something of a false dichotomy. How does watching a basketball game qualify as less than decent behavior?

    Perhaps, I’m misunderstanding you a bit.

  3. ClaireDePlume said

    You find offense in watching people watch people stuff food into themselves and I agree with you. Perhaps you don’t quite understand why I am offended that as a society, we place extreme value in activities which utilize resources but offer only temporary entertainment, and very little payback to society as a whole. I take offense that our resources and our finest are not necessarily in alignment with purposes which serve the greater good.

    It seems that life is good as long as it is all fun and games. I don’t personally find it much of a stretch from sitting in a stadium c/w artery horrifying refreshments while watching a game, to being part of a spectacle viewing or doing what comes naturally when consuming too many sports favorite foods (such as hot dog eating contests). I think that as a society, we have chosen to degrade ourselves and our world with fluff and fun. Is eating mass quantities of carcinogenic food or gawking while others do the same a deplorable pass time? Yes. And here’s how I see the world of sports and a connection between sports and fluff: many people crowd into stadiums or arenas or bars or living rooms to SIT viewing others doing something athletic, for no other purpose than entertainment, all the while imbibing beyond the realm of need and into gluttony. Is standing thousands of people deep to see people commit dietary suicide much of a stretch from this?

    As for spending money and paying money – it’s been said that 90% of the world’s resources are used by 10% of the world’s population. If these numbers are even close to the truth, I must inquire how can we justify such gross misappropriation of our earth’s gifts – people, talents, abilities and on and on – to serve as sport for spectators and little else? Exactly what long term benefits for everyone are being provided for in such displays? How can a national sport benefit a nation 100 years from now or even next season? Why do we pay so handsomely for such pleasant distractions and yet there’s not nearly “enough to go around” in all the things which support and promote life? How can eating hot dogs more than anyone else or hitting a ball further than anyone else help the United States, North America, the earth, the universe or life itself?

  4. JoAnne said

    I happened to be watching a TV show about hotdogs last week, so I want to point out that one of the things that differentiates the Nathan’s contest from sports events — the spectators would probably all be there anyway. It’s held on Coney Island on the Fourth of July.

    Saying they’re there for an eating contest would be like saying that thousands of people congregate daily for the 4-H exhibits at the State Fair, or that hundreds of cars that slow down to see an accident on the side of the road drove there just to see crumpled metal. They’re already there; most of them wouldn’t go if that’s all there was.

    I think sports and competition can be great, and people can learn a lot from sports, from cooperation to preparation to extending your abilities to just having fun and respecting your body.

    But there is something wrong with large portions of sports and competition the way it’s played here in the USA. Some of the problems:

    * Physical Education programs that emphasize winning rather than participation, so that the “fat kids” and “uncoordinated kids” decide they don’t want to do anything with their bodies.

    * The associated problem Claire dePlume notes, of millions of people sitting on their asses and watching an elite few actually participating in sports.

    * Drugs that are simultaneously performance-enhancing and life-threatening, and how they are filtering down to high schools and even middle schools.

    * The culture of privilege that surrounds (mostly male) top athletes, to the point of excusing them for being top-flight assholes and felons.

    * Blood sports like boxing, and non-sport sports like dogfighting.

    * Gambling and the cheating it fosters.

    * Branded merchandise.

    Competitive eating is just an extension of the lucrative sports and gambling complex. It’s not in opposition to it.

    I can’t help thinking that if the people who were in the Astrodome post-Katrina were treated as well as the ones who were there for ball games pre-Katrina, that would make me less uneasy about the place of sports in US society.

  5. digglahhh said


    I’m just going to simply submit that most of the problems you mentioned are not an extension of sports as much they reflect the underlying dysfunctional nature as manifested through sports.

    The debate team isn’t any less concerned with winning than the basketball team…


    I think your argument is protracted. As I said to JoAnne, many of the problems you reference are social problems. People like myself, I can’t speak for everyone, watch sports because we have played them and understand how difficult it is to do – and how amazing these athletes are.

    In a convoluted version of your argument, one could claim that reading a poem (or buying a book of poetry) is a waste of time, because you should, say, be WRITING poetry instead.

    Playing sports as a child is one of the best means to foster tolerance and healthy development of social skills. One can learn to enjoy exercise, to trust others, to commit to a cause beyond yourself, etc. If society decides to glorify and value a perversion of the essence of sport – that’s our problem. A hot dog eating contest has no inherent redeeming qualities. A professional basketball game does. It’s not the fault of the game if we appreciate it for less than laudable reasons.

    Your argument invites very strict judgment. Do you not pursue any activities for leisure purposes exclusively?

  6. ClaireDePlume said

    Sports is potentially a great benefit to us if we so choose. I see that my comments were one-sided and can be easily misconstrued as imbalanced and unfair – I apologize to you if my remarks were harsh.

    All children should learn the importance of team playing, tolerance, and healthy social skills. Apparently the hot dog eaters missed that class.

    At some point, we must leave behind our childish ways to play in the big leagues. Sportsman-like knowledge and all of the physical benefits of physical competition can pay dividends in our personal and social development – once we learn and apply our skills. How we apply these acquired skills affects all of us.

    Work and play must have balance. Perhaps my comments lack balance, and this might be because the world is on a slant and no matter how I position myself on the playing field, far far too many of the other kids are somehow off-centre.

  7. digglahhh said

    Thank you for that, Claire.

    I’m pretty biased in this regard too. I’m a huge sports fan, and I play several sports as well, though not as often as I once did, or wish I could.

    I think, when appreciated the right way, sports can actually be a powerful vehicle to encourage learning and curiosity among kids.

    I certainly devote, what many would consider, an obscene amount of my time to following sports. I like to think that I am not deficient in terms of being educated, balanced, or productive. So, I, too, am probably somewhat “imbalanced” regarding this subject.

  8. ClaireDePlume said

    Striving for balance is an honourable beginning.

    I’ve lived in my head for most of my life, but I’m working on attaining equilibrium. Just before your post appeared, I joined a fitness club – for real this time. It’s an uphill stride, a quantum leap, but I’m ready to learn a “new language” and be as conversant with my muscles as with my mouth.

    I hope to see us all grow in ways which help us to understand and respect all of our “languages”.

    Thanks, ‘Digg’

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