Friday, August 01, 2014

Why We Love Sports?

A few years ago, I was at a dive bar in Los Angeles watching a Clippers game when a guy a few seats down asked why I cared about something as silly as sports. I thought about it for a few minutes and then made the bold claim that I could provide five reasons why I loved sports, and others should as well. As I had never created such a list, I was forced to do it on the fly, and came up with the list below, which I have occasionally brought back out when challenged by one of the many Southern Californians who would rather spend their time in the sun. Here is that list, though I’m sure you could think of plenty of other reasons equally strong …

1. The Sublime
There is a sense among some that life is a futile exercise, punctuating by the fruitless search to find meaning and efforts to wile away the time until our inevitable end. Others find a meaning they can attach themselves to – from religion to love to helping others to acquiring boats full of money to swim around in – and thus transcend the existential void. But the in between is where we actually live our lives, seeking moments of beauty or ephemeral happiness to salve the wounds of existence. And here is where sports can step in to bridge the gap between the quotidian struggle against ennui and those quixotic, random moments that give us hope. The sublime is something that exists at the margins, in the interstices, so often sough and so rarely seen. The place where genius and art meet, where the search for beauty erupts in moments of joy and ecstasy. And while art offers a space for its full realization, it happens more often in sports than any other sphere. The diving catch, the last second goal, a body swooshing through the air like a bird before slamming a ball through a net, the crack of a bat, the thump of a 100 mile an hour pitch into leather, the body floating above the snow like an angel, taking a beating in the ring and then finding that perfect combination, the fortitude to ride high into the mountains and then sprint to the line and a thousand other moments all provide access to that rarest of beauties – the sublime.

2. Lost Masculinity
The problem of masculinity is one that has plagued Americans for at least a century, at least if we are to believe Karl Jung, who made that very point on a visit to the U.S. early in the last century. He claimed that men had been emasculated by their wives and their repetitive work, caught in the trap of modernity and its push for increased equality and efficiency. This struggle exists around the world, but stands firmly at the center of American popular culture. We see it in the search for hip and cool, in the bursting riffs of rock and roll, in the misogynist erotic pugilism of hip hop, in so much modernist art and poetry from the Cubists forward, in noir and action heroes from Bogie to Stallone, in novelists from Hemingway and Mailer to Wallace and Dick and, of course, in sports. Sports provide a space for men to be men, most obviously in the NFL, boxing and NHL, but really across most sports – where we can live vicariously through performance of traditional masculinity in the raw. Sports provides a space where men can confront the emasculation of the contemporary world, pretending that we are still the cavemen dominating the world through brute strength and guile alone.

3. Community/Tribes
The modern world is also defined by its alienation – the ironic ways in which pushing so many of us together into dense urban centers has simultaneously undermined the tight-knit communities most once lived within. Alienation is an almost de rigeur component of contemporary life forcing most to seek new ways to create imaginary communities from the vestiges of the past. From Facebook to Meetup to Online Gaming, we see how the Internet has entered that fray, creating tribes no longer trapped within the barriers once erected by time and space. But sports have been creating these imaginary communities for well over a century. People who have never met, never spoken and might never come into contact, can share the tribal togetherness of supporting the same team. Why do we say “we” when we speak of our favorite teams? Why do we wear jerseys and hats and other gear that announces to the world our affiliation? Why do we go root on our team, when the comforts of home beckon us? There are many reasons, of course, but that sense of community arguably stands near the top of that list. We are social animals and sports provides a valuable avenue for sating that quest, a united front against a cruel and unforgiving world.

4. Pure Competition (Justice in an Unjust World)
While the market fundamentalists continue to sell us the dream of free markets and perfect competition, few actually believe the world is fair or just. Money buys privilege, dominates politics, provides better opportunities for affluent children, undermines the American dream and undercuts the very promise of America as the land of the free. The bad go unpunished, the good die young and justice becomes a bygone dream of an erstwhile world that may never have existed. And while money also plays a role in sports, most obviously in world soccer, there is a sense that on the field, in that one moment, every team has a chance to win. Underdogs do it everyday, and it is an American pastime to root for those Cinderella stories. What was the greatest moment in the history of sports? For many Americans old enough to remember, it was that night in Lake Placid when an overmatched group of college kids beat one of the best hockey teams ever assembled. Or March Madness when NC State won on a buzzer beater or Villanova beat a brilliant Georgetown team or Butler marched to the Final Four. Those stories exist across sports and thus provide that space where even innate advantage meets the reality of the competitive spirit and the human capacity for beating the odds.

5. Notion of Human Perfectability
The dream of human perfection and progress weave their way through the tapestry of human history from Milton and Goethe to Locke, Wollstonecraft and Hegel. The Enlightenment thinkers fundamentally believed that science, reason and technology could lead us on the path toward utopia, an idea that continued to dominate thought until the Holocaust and World War II showed what that promised future could reap. Close to a 100 million people died and skepticism about the effects of science, technology and rationality proliferated in its wake. Yet the persistent belief in the possibility continues to spark the imagination – in superheroes, body building, certain strands of religious fervor, in genetic engineering and the like. Sports provides a space where we both see the struggle play out and its many failures. Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs show us the dark side. New training regimes, big data, money ball and so many other applications of new technology remind us that we are always in the process of becoming and that for every sublime moment in sports another will someday surpass it.

Many will continue to ignore the deeper beauty of sports or mock those of us who embrace it. They will argue that we are wasting our time and money, suckered in by owners who reap billions from our blind allegiance to the dark art of propaganda. They will argue we are ignorant or blind, failing to embrace the beauty of art or theatre. They will prefer to play than watch, as if the two are mutually exclusive. Or they will simply say they think sports are boring or dumb. But those of us who see beyond the veneer recognize the tragedy and ecstasy we may discover any time we tune in.

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