In my last post I wrote about my history with the San Francisco 49ers; the ups and downs I faced as a young sports fanatic. I concluded it, by stating that this year’s Super Bowl is personal for me. When you think about this though, it’s quite strange. I have no stock in the 49ers, I know nobody involved in the organization, if they win or lose it should not personally affect me in any way, shape, or form…
Yet, I have probably faced more heartbreak (of which I consider genuine) at the hands of sports teams than I have girls, friends, or anything of the sort. I have a personal investment in these people who have mastered a set of skills that society has for some reason deemed important.
Why is that?
These are questions that I have pondered, not extensively, but a little bit, which I think is something that is more than the average sports fan has. Why do we love sports? Why don’t people ask themselves this more often?
I guess the main reason is that it is a distraction from our lives and thinking about it takes away from people’s main purpose in enjoying it, the not thinking aspect of it. But I do think critical thinking is important, so think about it I will.
I have broken down this attraction to sports (and subsequently games as well) into 3 different categories. Each person has their reason for enjoying sports and I think that they may fall into at least 1 of 3 categories: Competition, Creativity, and Community.
Competition is a desire to see who is the best; a desire to see the best physical specimens doing what they’re best at and seeing one conquer another. This perhaps comes out of some Darwinian nature or throwback to days when war and world domination was even more common than it is now (or at least more violently prevalent, because this certainly exists in more subtle ways today).
I don’t really ascribe to this worldview that mankind is mere beast and I’d like to think that we can choose to live above a “survival of the fittest” ethic, but sports certainly does give us a world where compassion is naught (though sometimes we’d like it to exist which I will touch on later).
I think you see this type of fan particularly in more violent sports such as mixed martial arts, boxing, or football. Football fans have recently faced a dilemma between keeping the violent nature of the sport at the risk of the health of the people who participate in it and with each new rule there is always the outcry of complaints that they are ruining the sport.
Even something like the sprints of track and field play into this, where we just want to see someone run as fast as possible out-performing each other person by pure physical power and not much else.
This aspect of sports is one that is not the main attraction for me, but even I fall into the desire to see who is the best. This can be seen in relentless pursuit of perfecting playoff systems in order to truly find out which team or person is best and to label them “champion”. Even baseball has recently done this, a sport which can be argued, is the least physically dominant and leads every sport in the use of statistics (MATH!) in winning (see Moneyball). Every sport has a desired outcome which seeks to discover who is the best, the way the game or sport is designed figures into the second category.
Sports has no inherent meaning and adds no value to our lives. They exist in an interesting place that is between entertainment, recreation, and business. When you think about it, it is similar to the place that movies, music, and television play within popular culture. There are people who make a living off of each, those who do it because they love it, and those who pay for it because they enjoy the experience it gives them. While sports probably fits closer to the low culture aspects of everything listed above in that it is more pure entertainment and doesn’t purposefully tell us about the human condition, but the mere fact that people set about creating something in order to add (or take away) from our lives in some sense makes it a kind of art.
Each sport has its own set of rules and strategies to adapt to those rules in order to provide the best possible outcome for the person or team participating. The process of coming up with rules in order to create a satisfying game requires some sort of creative ability. Sports are not invented on a daily basis, but if you consider each sport as its own medium like painting or sculpting then it works like any other art form. Most painters and sculptors base their works on hundreds of years of people who have come before them; building upon the use of basic tools and ideas to express something of their own. Look at any elementary school recess and you will see kids adapting a set of rules provided to them by professionals to fit their own limitations (examples of this would be the creation of “Ghost Runners” in whiffle ball, the existence of kickball, or 2-hand touch football with all its street adaptations.)
Sports do not provide inherent meaning to our lives and at times they might seem to bring us back to some barbaric mindset, but they also help us to satisfy a creative itch that seems to exist in mankind. Most games are brilliantly drawn out down to the most minute detail, something that does not get talked about or really recognized at all.
It is a common notion that man wants to be a part of something larger than his or herself. Poet John Donne famously put it “no man is an island”, connecting with others is something that seems to resonate within most people.
Sports have become more than a game played between individuals on some sort of playing field, they have become historical events filled with analysts, experts, and places dedicated to discussing each step taken. There are blogs, radio stations, podcasts, newspapers, water coolers, etc… all providing forums for talking about sports.
There is no doubt in my mind that sports have become such a giant part of our existence due to this ability to bring people together. We talk about coaching decisions, misplays, and phenomenons that we can hardly believe existed, things that are not as enjoyable when experienced alone.
Last weekend’s 49ers game that advanced them to the Super Bowl (and inspired this barrage of thoughts) I, due to circumstances, had to watch alone. While the game was one of the most important sporting events to me personally in my lifetime, it simply was not the same as watching it with people I grew up watching games with. I wanted to feel excited, but felt restrained.
On the opposite hand, complete strangers will embrace in celebration due to sporting feats. Going to a game or even a sports bar with unknown people cheering on the same team will draw people closer than many other things will. You can’t get some men to say more than 5 words to each other (I know because I am one of them), but throw sports into the mixture and you’ll get a conversation longer than this post.
This is probably the reason that people can get so violent over sports. It is like the reverse effect, causing people to antagonize and even act aggressively toward one another despite the fact that the outcome of a game shouldn’t really affect them (all betting aside, literally).
Sports is not alone in providing community for people, really being a subculture mostly consisting of middle-aged men, more manly types of men (mostly). I think it does the same thing that celebrity gossip sites and magazines do for women, science fiction does for nerds, and politics does for most of its followers (these are all sweeping generalizations), it provides a way to connect to others.
While all 3 of these aptly C-starting categories provide reasons as to why sports are such a huge part of our world, it doesn’t fully explain the heartbreak and joy experienced as a sports follower, I hope to continue this in a later post (perhaps in a post-Super Bowl lament or in jubilance depending on what happens) about the way we seem to crave positive narratives in our lives.