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Saturday
Feb022008

Why We Sport

With the exception of this month–long quadrennial tournament, tomorrow’s championship game is the most widely watched sporting event in the world.  For that reason, we digress for one afternoon on the subject.
“Sports replace armies and dreams, and although many people derive from them a form of vicarious pleasure, it is excellence that attracts many more.  Grace and excellence.  It is a sense of imagined community and common beliefs and wishes, and is as important territorially as any district line or catchment area.”
Whether you believe the statement above, quilted together from innumerable sources, is less important than the unchallenged place of sports in a society that often discourages antagonism.  Competition, you see, is what made us into the most intelligent life form on this lonely planet, and we would be denying our inner need to excel if we relegated ourselves to more peaceful pursuits and more private achievements (if we used our athletic abilities, for example, to cope with the dangers of urban living and to help those in need in urban crises, which are the aims of this discipline).  Granted, maybe you shouldn't take that last sentence at face value, but what’s in a name?  Sport is shortened from disport, which persons of very choice vocabulary might use to describe amusement or diversion, more evident in the Spanish equivalent.  A few of us are entertained by clashes, by miniwars between evenly matched opponents whose every move may decide the outcome.  Others seek commonality in what they watch: their fellow fans are a sort of surrogate family that rises and falls in unison.  Should sports be a struggle or a bond?  It should be, and is for most adherents, a bit of both.      

180px-Jeu_de_paume.jpgSports are certainly an outlet for violence and frustration, and we needn’t belabor how many of our highly evolved species exhibit signs of bestiality.  Watching something intensely athletic or even ultraviolent, a term apparently coined by this writer, gives us a sense of the Darwinian struggle, of the fittest and the leanest and their right to claim supremacy.  The vanquished foe, someone whom we will never know away from the battlefield, represents the fall of the unjust, of those destined to lose and bow before superior strength.  We hold that superior strength.  We raise our arms to heaven in victory when we halt injustice and evil and hatred and when we champion the triumph of some higher power.  Our wishes have been met, our squad has captured a title and a piece of history (or at least a place in the annals), and all other teams become easy targets of our year–round discontent.  I suppose the majority of sports fans secretly harbor no ill will towards the opponents they jeer and mock, but there is great satisfaction in ventilating the tension of the day on rich young men whom we will never get to know personally and who, in any case, couldn’t care less about what we thought of them.      

Often, these brave new worldbeaters can be seen thanking that higher power for allowing them to win.  Many cynics find such displays of gratitude disingenuous, probably because they don’t thank anyone for anything and believe that they alone are responsible for their lives and accomplishments.  Clearly, many athletes who indefatigably refuse to offer their services unless they squeeze another few million out of their teams are not quite as pious as they may claim; one particularly laughable accessory is a cross or crucifix laden with every gem and precious metal that taste would permit.  Even if separating the righteous from the wicked (insert alternative hyperbole here) is absolutely none of our business, we still find, among the hypocrites and moneymen, players who remain gracious and meek in the face of their extraordinary talent.  These young men should be especially admired because they are surrounded by temptations at every platform of their profession and, as celebrities, are almost coerced into behaving badly (Who, tell me now, finds modest and thoughtful players interesting?  Players humbled by the fact that they have succeeded while the multitude fail?  A few of us, I suppose). 
 
These men — in this country, around the world, in the smallest of society's campsites — are teammates, wear identical uniforms, and work towards shared accolades, but they are no longer of the same ethnic heritage.   No pictures of the French or Dutch national soccer teams are needed to prove that point, nor to explain the policies of centuries ago that resulted in this multiculturalism.  Yet let us remember how exceedingly rare it is to be able to root gladsomely for something apolitical and transcultural, where race, religion, gender, age, native language and homeland mean absolutely nothing.  True, a certain parochial flavor obtains in local rivalries, or even those between two great American cities; but globalization and telecommunications have advanced to such a point that we lucky Jims and Janes now have near unlimited possibilities for living and working where we choose (we being, albeit, still a fragmentary minority), and fans can follow their teams from all the ends of the earth.  Regardless of their distance or the likely fact that they are no longer able to watch the games live, they still feel part of an imagined community, a brotherhood and sisterhood of similar goals. 
 
These affiliations may not replace nations at war, although we would all benefit if they did.  Occasionally, maybe even more often than that, the inflamed passions of patriotism are tempered by smaller divisions and victories.  How often do we hear of better work environments on Monday morning after a local team's victory over the weekend (and the attendant apathy on the heels of defeat)?  Considering how uninvolved we are in each other's lives, and how society affirms that we are all victims who have experienced unique suffering and difficulties, what is wrong in finding an abstraction that gives us a reason to smile kindly upon our cubicled neighbor?  This desire for microsuccess and camaraderie is not, and should never be, anything deplorable.  Some may find it odd that a person like myself, devoted to a long life of learning, would be at all interested in sportsmanship.  But it is precisely a connection with persons I cannot meet that reminds me of our common interests: peace, equality, fairness, and a healthy dose of ambition.  Some (maybe those same some) think that fandom is primarily for underachievers who, enfeebled by a lack of skill or initiative, decide to let others strive and take vicarious pride in those milestones.  Admittedly, a lot of hero worship persists.  That is why the Hellenes had gods of every capacity, why medieval varlets looked upon galloping warriors with such blissful acceptance, and why today we have innumerable leagues of superheroes, one of the most curious collective abstractions in human history.  Whatever the truth may be, we may agree to admire those who can do things we could never possibly accomplish, and yet still work towards our own goals.   There is no mutual exclusivity in this proposal.
 
The turning point in a man's maturity is the exact moment he realizes he will never become a professional athlete, and some men, as we know, never quite arrive at this juncture.  I am certainly proud when I root, but it is ironically the quiet pride of the parent or guardian or teacher that prevails, one that understands that we, as fans, have little to do with any team’s on—field success.  Yet we do have a say in preserving the societal value of sports as a method of learning teamwork, pride, dedication, discipline, and patience, of being gracious in victory and wanting to play the game by the rules.  And most of all, of learning how to lose.  Because loss will always be our building block for strength.

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