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What Professional Sports Can Learn From Ninjas

‘American Ninja Warrior’ is the perfect American sport: not just Man, but Everyman vs. Everything.


On a recent Monday night, America watched as a hairless guy named Kevin Bull manifested the glory of humanity. His opponent was a bizarre contrivance called “Cannonball Alley”—a series of three balls of increasing size suspended sequentially over a pool of water. The goal was to get across the pool by means of the balls and a ridiculous amount of upper-body and grip strength. A bunch of guys had already gone down. But the Bull proceeded with so much ingenuity and style as to make us all ask pretty angrily, “What kind of moron would still be pretending to care about the World Cup when this is on?” Watch for yourself.

“American Ninja Warrior” is on NBC on Monday nights. It is a goofy obstacle course for mighty folk. Some gain the right to compete by sending in a video; others stand in line to win a walk-on appearance. It is the perfect hybrid of reality TV and sports, the latter of which no longer have much to do with reality. It is open to men and women. Every shade of human skin has been peeled off the course’s rubbery surfaces. Displays of religion and pseudo-religion are ordinary. Olympic athletes, American gladiators, teachers, physicians, regular dudes, and girls who love love love horses show up to compete. A variety of body types (minus the epidemic one) are represented, although the obstacles favor the compact or wiry over the massive or gangly. Ninja Warriors compete in slacks and ties, belted jeans, workout clothes, gold spandex bodysuits, or whatever. The course requires agility and balance, but it ultimately insists upon endurance times strength.

The show paces itself wisely, featuring some runs in their entirety and others by highlights. It profiles a few contestants at length and allows others to showcase their personalities with their performance. We are given the joy of many crashes while meandering toward a victorious-feeling conclusion. The interviewer on the sidelines conforms perfectly to the contemporarily prescribed body, visage, and personality for the quotidian babe. The commentators exhibit the inimitable joy of those being paid to do something awesome. There is some kind of back story involving Japan and a mountain, but you only have to commit mental energy to that if you want to. In short, “American Ninja Warrior” is the perfect American sport: not just Man, but Everyman vs. Everything.

A Remedy for Professional Sports Fatigue

Professional sports are in no danger of falling out of American favor, yet none of them allow us to feel proud of that loyalty. There is, at best, a silliness in knowing that a plurality of the highest-paid professionals in our country have made good doing what children do while we watch on our duffs.

It is the total openness of the competition combined with the individual determination to win it which make ‘American’ seem like the show’s truest descriptor.

Factor in the decline of baseball, a game so slow that chubby white guys still succeed at it; the pounding of brains to noxious goo by the monstrous brutes of the NFL; basketball, which keeps embarrassing itself by being so much worse than the rest of us at acting like racism isn’t a thing or a good thing or something. Behold how Google is still forcing us to look at soccer doodles, and remains angry that nowhere near enough people rolled their eyes at the appearance of the word soccer in that first clause. Sigh again over Title IX, and how you just can’t force anyone to watch girls play ball, much less pay them for doing so. Remember that rant from Frank DeFord a couple of weeks ago over the nonsensical romanticizing of amateurism and what it means for college athletes. Consider how we relinquish some portion of our hearts to para-patriotic Olympic piety, even as we wonder why it’s somehow acceptable for children in their 30s to keep having their parents subsidize their snowboarding hobby. Mainstream sports, we love you, but you’re not exactly noble. Aristotle is so disgusted with all of us right now.

Except, perhaps, the American Ninja Warriors. They are free. They compete out of love, but not without hope of due reward (there is nothing stopping them from getting picked up by a corporate sponsor). The arrogant beefcake who biffs it shows us the folly of hubris. The splash-crash of an Olympian reveals the invincibility of fate. The meditative moment before the Warped Wall reminds us that our strength is not our own. The ladies, who go down pretty regularly, get as much love as the guys from a crowd that would be thrilled to see them succeed (and hey, we’ve never liked Atalanta any less for eventually getting beat). They have day jobs and real lives. They’re normal, except for their endearing over-commitment to American Ninja Warriordom.

They are populists who transcend vulgarity by being entrepreneurs of their own persons, engaging in identity capitalism rather than identity politics.

But the kitsch, singularity, and good-natured absurdity of the ANW concept keep it from degenerating into either soulless professional sports or brainless contest TV. The competitors win or lose on their power alone, not the tastes or moods of judge or audience. They are beholden to no franchise or owner. They avoid the self-absorption of the boring marathoner and the sycophancy of the applause-feeding singer. They are populists who transcend vulgarity by being entrepreneurs of their own persons, engaging in identity capitalism rather than identity politics. They are jazzed and grateful to be there, doing a loony thing they love while people cheer for them.

The American Ninja Warriors are warriors for their own sakes and, okay, not ninjas at all. But, Japanese provenance notwithstanding, it is the total openness of the competition combined with the individual determination to win it which make “American” seem like the show’s truest descriptor. Bring on the Kevin Bullhorns. I’d rather see a stock investor with alopecia beat Cannonball Alley than any soccer game, even one with a six-point spread.