Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What's the new national pastime?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
November 11, 2012 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
 Bob Greene says it's been awhile since baseball has really been the national pastime. Today that title goes to multitasking.
Bob Greene says it's been awhile since baseball has really been the national pastime. Today that title goes to multitasking.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene says it's been awhile since baseball has been the U.S. national pastime
  • He says life fragmented today; few things unify Americans as a shared pastime. TV once did
  • He says Internet has further splintered interests; is computer screen new opiate of masses?
  • Greene: New national pastime may just be multitasking. Makes you wish for baseball

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- In a country as splintered as the United States has become, can there be any such thing as a national pastime?

The phrase has been associated with the game of baseball since late in the 19th century, when sportswriters began dropping it into their stories. It was a great promotional slogan for the sport; whether it ever was literally true is open to question. But it would be just about impossible to make the case that baseball is the national pastime today; in a country of 314 million people, this year's World Series drew, on average, a television audience of only 12.7 million viewers per game (football's Super Bowl this year attracted an audience of more than 111 million).

Yet the question is not which sport has become the national pastime, but whether any single activity of any kind qualifies for that title. Cohesion is not exactly the dominating quality of 21st-century life; we are endlessly being reminded of all the choices we have about how to spend our time, and the concept of the entire country gravitating toward one leisure-time activity sounds beyond archaic.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

If baseball ever was, at least symbolically, the national pastime, it was supplanted in the early 1950s by the rapid growth in the number of television sets in American homes. Suddenly something was happening that had never before occurred: People all over the country were looking at the same thing at the same time. Most mornings, the main topic of conversation in offices, factories and schools across the continent was something that had been on all those television screens the night before. There were only three channels to watch in most cities, and perhaps an additional "educational" channel, the forerunner to PBS.

The nation had a new pastime, and it took place indoors.

The great majority of Americans who are alive today have no memory at all of a world before television. The median age in the United States hovers right around 37 years old; this means that half of all Americans were born in 1975 or later. The presence of television, to them, is as unremarkable as the sight of the sun in the summer sky.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



And a newer pastime, as we all know, has emerged, on screens of a different sort. To take note of how free time (whatever that has come to mean) is now being spent, all you have to do is walk down any street in any city or small town, and observe your fellow pedestrians checking the screens they grasp in their palms.

But the hegemony of early television, with those three channels, is a distant memory. No one can take the public's attention for granted today; first the advent of cable television fragmented viewing patterns, and then came the boundless Internet, followed by the creative forces that provide the content for all those little personal screens. Apple offers around 700,000 separate applications, as does Google. A lot of ways to pass the time, in a nation with a twitching concentration span.

Staying connected without a cell phone
Open Mic: Is cell phone dependency bad?
Church: Go forth and tweet

And there is always something around the next corner. The same way there are fewer and fewer Americans who can describe to you what the country was like before television, soon enough there will be few Americans who will be able to recall a world before the Internet. It is hard to conceive, but social history tells us that the seemingly limitless array of ways to spend time today will before long seem constricted and small.

There is a famous and provocative phrase, translated from the writings of Karl Marx, that has been used in various contexts over the years: "the opiate of the masses." The concept of people being susceptible to a symbolic opiate of any kind remains controversial and current. Do today's Americans simply enjoy the screens they carry with them, or are they psychologically addicted to them -- is it a pleasurable pastime, or are they hooked? It's not an unfair question.

(And as far as opiates go -- pharmacological and figurative -- the Wall Street Journal recently reported on an intriguing development at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, as explained by Rhonda Scott, Grady's chief nursing officer: "Grady agreed to double the number of TV channels in rooms and add ESPN because 'the requests for pain medication go down during the afternoon football games,' Dr. Scott said.")

Our pastimes are many, and the very idea of a national pastime goes against the contemporary aversion to doing only one thing at a time.

Although the very real possibility exists that, seemingly contradictorily, we have indeed settled on a new kind of national pastime:

Multitasking.

Baseball's starting to sound better and better.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT