About two-thirds of the way through A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Chris Browne's weirdly engaging documentary about professional bowling, the bad boy of the game, Pete Weber, looks straight into the camera and assures us: "I'm not an asshole." Whether to believe Weber is an open question, given what we've seen of him in the previous hour. Skinny, strutting Pete Weber brooding and cursing his fate. Pete Weber crowing theatrically, chopping his outstretched palms straight at his crotch. Disgusted and defeated Pete Weber dumping his bowling ball onto the floor with a dull thud. He's no longer the nasty drunk he says he once was, but even now the man invites neither admiration nor sympathy.
But then, that seems to be bowling's problem too. What we see here is a game with a low-rent public image and an inferiority complex to match, struggling to survive in a marketplace jam-packed with second-tier pro sports like arena football, indoor lacrosse and nine-ball pool tournaments broadcast from obscure Indian casinos. These days, high-stakes poker grabs a bigger share of the TV audience than bowling, and the card players don't even have to bring their own ball, bag and shoes. "Nobody knows this fucking thing exists," laments Steve Miller, the bumptious, profane CEO of the Professional Bowlers Association.
It's unlikely that Browne's film will help -- despite the care and fellow-feeling in it. The sport reached its zenith in the 1950s (when Weber's father Dick was one of the mainstays) and has been declining ever since: What appears to be left is a touching combination of brave striving, low comedy and back-street tragedy. Five years ago, a pair of ex-Microsoft engineers bought the entire league for $5 million, and they've had a hard go.
But the personalities remain vivid. Cocky Pete Weber may not move you. But Wayne Webb might. When League was shot, two years ago, Webb was a 45-year-old PBA journeyman who'd been sleeping alone in motels for 27 years and fighting a gambling problem for almost that long. We watch him unravel in the course of the 2003 season. " I have no family," he says. "I have no life." What he has is a dog named Zina and the dim hope of scraping out a living hosting karaoke nights in the cocktail lounges of "bowling centers" across the country. He's given himself to the game; the game seems to have taken his soul. We wonder if he's one of the many players who decline even to acknowledge what they do for a living at the check-in desk.
But even at the high end of bowling -- if there is one -- we get an unmistakable whiff of gloom. Straight-arrow family man Walter Ray Williams, a brawny stoic who's the most consistent player on tour, is everything his rival Pete Weber is not. But Williams, too, comes off as doubt-stricken, and possibly delusional. He tells us that if he weren't a pro bowler, he might be an engineer with NASA; two hours after he wins the PBA World Championship at a bowling alley in a Detroit suburb, Browne captures the Williams celebration party on film -- the newly crowned best bowler on the planet, shovel in hand, chipping ice off the roof of his motorhome out in the parking lot.
Bowling hasn't been on network TV since ABC cancelled it in 1997, and ESPN now carries just twenty one-hour broadcasts per year. That irks PBA chieftain Miller, who says he's trying to attract the all-important 18-to-35 male demographic. But if he's looking for input from his employees about strategy, you'd never know it. "I don't give a shit what the players want," the boss barks. Addressing them at a state-of-the-league meeting, Miller's charm has not abated: "We're in this together, or you can kiss my ass," he announces. That's just before he orders Weber and Williams and the others to get busy sewing a new league patch onto their bowling shirts -- or else.
Nice. Can you imagine Paul Tagliabue ordering Peyton Manning and Terrell Owens to take up needle and thread?
Browne obviously has sympathy for the beleaguered players on the tour, but he, too, can't help partaking in the sad joke that envelops the game: By the bowlers' own admission, it's committed the unpardonable sin of boring the audience. So if those 18-to-35-year-olds are paying attention at all, it's probably with the same ironic disdain with which most of America now views the game. Come catch the freak show on the boob tube for a minute; the Patriots-Jets game will be on soon enough.
For the Wayne Webbs of the world, bowling has become low-paid anguish. "It's really all I know," he says, just before hanging 'em up. But even the PBA's low-wattage stars don't have much to look forward to. When League's anti-climactic World Championship match -- Weber versus Williams -- is about to get under way, the ESPN announcer, doing his best to manufacture excitement, fairly shouts into his mic: "So much prestige. So much prize money!" But he's kidding himself, too. Bowling prestige is in pretty short supply, and the $120,000 Williams gets for winning the World Championship is just about what New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez gets paid for six innings of play.