Why I like something as dumb and meaningless as professional sports

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For some of us it’s the most wonderful time of the year. If you spend time in a house crowded with relatives this week, chances are that somewhere the house a small group has gathered in front of a screen, to watch grown men throw balls or try to stop other men from throwing balls.

Millions of people take these activities as seriously as elections and wars. If you don’t, you may wonder why these professionally-performed made-up activities compel anyone at all.

From Tim Pirolli’s brilliant article in The Onion, “Professional Sports is Very Interesting”:

Whenever a ball is hit, put into a hoop, or carried to a particular point of significance, my mind instantly races to consider all of the action’s possible ramifications: “How will this affect future hittings, throwings, and carryings of other, different balls?” I wonder to myself. What a joy it is to closely follow a random group of men thrown together in one geographic location working together to win contests of athletic ability.

Although I am probably more devoted to watching inane ball-throwings on Sundays than most people are to their churches, I think the article is right on. Professional sports is exactly as ridiculous than that.

But I love it and there are of hundreds of millions like me. Non-sports people often look upon us as easily-stimulated meatheads, and some of us are, but clearly many intelligent and discerning people watch too. I will try to explain why this is so.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to watch, only explain that there is something there to get, well beyond what you might get from a three-hour action movie.

Viewed without context, yes, it is silly that anywhere on this earth there are angry young men with blades on their feet and crooked sticks in their hands, competing to fling a hardened black disc into a drape of nylon mesh. It seems sillier still that millions of dollars of infrastructure are built to house these thoroughly artificial and arbitrary competitions.

I’m not concerned by the ultimate meaninglessness of ball-throwings and trophy-hoistings any more than I am with the ultimate meaninglessness of the tides and star-circlings that constitute the natural world. If there’s some kind of beauty in their unfolding then that’s enough for me.

The ultimate inanity of the whole thing is what allows for its beauty. Because it’s a completely artificial plane of competition, there’s a fairness and transparency you don’t have when human beings compete at anything else. Each sport is a well-refined, self-contained universe governed by laws simple enough that anyone can know and understand them. Nowhere else in the human world are the goals so sharply defined and the parameters so firm. This gives the viewers and participants inside the sphere a unique clarity about what is possible, and what is truly good and bad.

Inside these little ant farms, actions have utterly clear implications, even while those actions are inane in the “real world.” There’s nothing particularly useful about moving a puck or ball to a particular place, or particularly damaging about allowing another team to move it to a different place, except that the millions of people involved have agreed that it is so.

This idea of agreed meaning is beautiful to me. That kind of cooperation among adversaries seems to be unique to sport. The wild arenas of business and politics don’t have these fine edges and universal respect for the whole, and so they are rife with corruption and victimization. One party’s achievements can create horrendous side-effects for others.

When we release humans into these isolated, limited universes of sports, their aims are transparent and definite, and the methods by which they must achieve them are known to everyone. The Denver Broncos achieving even their highest possible aspiration isn’t going to wreck the housing market or keep troops overseas longer, no matter by what margin they crush the competition or improve upon last year’s numbers.

Corruption sometimes sneaks its way into sport, as with any field where there are opportunities for personal gain. However, the audience — who pays for the whole thing — has no interest in a crooked sport and so there’s very little tolerance for cheating. Once cheaters are exposed, they are typically disgraced and shunned no matter how beloved they once were. Imagine if this was the prevailing culture in government, law enforcement, religion or finance.

Hearts beat together over something real

The reason sports are so compelling to so many of us is because their contained worlds produce thrilling stories without the predictable contrivances of a hired writer. Sport’s artificial settings very reliably create harrowing real-time dramas, whose plot twists, lessons and climaxes are unknown to absolutely everyone until the moment they happen.

Outside of the odd moon-landing, a pivotal moment in a sporting event is the only time when tens of millions of people gasp together — at least without some deadly tragedy having occurred. In those moments, while a pass of tremendous consequence hangs in the air, there’s a solidarity among fans the likes of which most people won’t experience anywhere else in their lives, except perhaps the kind that occurs when a group of uniformed men are trying to kill (or avoid being killed by) a second, differently-uniformed group of men.

These aspects of the experience are simply not apparent to uninvolved, tisking onlooker, and I understand that. One has to experience an emotional alignment with the unfoldings on the field in order to understand the resounding meaning of certain movements of ball or puck. Every fan’s fanship began with just such an experience, and I have witnessed it happening to people. You can’t care until you do.

I’m not compelled by every one of these artificial universes, although I respect those who are compelled by ones I’m not. I like hard-fought ball-carryings and line-crossings, while others prefer their balls lobbed through steel hoops or bounced off fine grass. My father was never interested in my line-crossings or my sister’s puck-slappings, but he would get up at two in the morning just to watch the qualifying for the next day’s European car-circlings. I never experienced firsthand the glory of repeated car-circlings, but I recognize it’s something I am missing, not something that isn’t there.

Intelligence has very little to do with whether a particular person finds sports compelling or not, but snarky sports-haters often imply that enjoying sports requires a certain lack of refinement or self-awareness. There’s a myth that the appealing facet of sports is the violence and spectacle, but it’s actually the constantly-evolving plot. Beginning-middle-and-end stories unfold over single plays, matches, seasons, and lifetimes.

Heart-stopping moments happen with regularity if you are able to invest emotional significance in whether the red-shirted or green-shirted people are the ones who achieve their day’s goal. People who can’t or won’t do this are curiously proud of it, even while they happily watch fake crime investigations or relationship breakdowns on the same screen.

In fiction, of course the knight saves the princess, but when the authoring of the story is left to the unsentimental hand of physics, and the protagonist is determined by the viewer, unthinkable things happen. There are no deus ex machinas, dreams within dreams, static characters, panderous endings or any of the other lazy elements that fiction trains us to expect. Once the artificial setting is established, nature is allowed to write the story, and nature has no loyalty to cliches or expectations.

There are other places where unscripted drama creates similarly visceral senses of glory and loss, except in those cases the drama is created by the unpredictable motions of bullets and explosions, there’s nothing fair or confined about it, and everybody loses anyway.

Sports provides a relatively safe environment for indulging in the ancient but often thoughtless drive to draw clean “us against them” lines. We’re drawn to this simple emotional arrangement — men particularly, perhaps — and sports gives us a place to indulge in it with arbitrary and temporary teams rather than lines drawn by race or religion.

I don’t get hung up on the ugliness of the commerce that sometimes surrounds the actual playing of the sport. I know people who have stopped watching sports because of the way in which it is marketed and used for marketing other things. The profiteering has nothing at all to do with sports itself. The same ugly monetization grows around anything people value on a large scale. The single-minded opportunists that exploit the attention paid to sports would do the same for music, food, fashion, or fiction — whichever happened to be the field in which they felt they were most capable of doing so.

Discovering the saga

On certain beautiful occasions, non-sports people inadvertently get drawn in by the contagious tension of the endgame of a significant match. Every long-time sports fan has witnessed someone’s mother or significant other become riveted by the ostensibly meaningless physical struggles near the end of a significant sporting event. Their eyes widen and they lose track of themselves.

During the 1993 World Series I watched my grandmother jump up and down on our couch involuntarily after a man named Joe hit a ball over a distant fence with a polished piece of wood.

I watched this happen during the 2008 Super Bowl too, with a non-sports-watching friend. The Super Bowl is frustrating to full-season fans, because while it’s the one day when the most non-sports people end up watching sports, it is the most exploited, overblown single-day sporting event there is. The game itself is buried in nine hours of sappy history reels, military recruiting and pop medleys.

In any case, anyone who did watch to the end of the actual game in 2008 was helplessly amazed when in the dying seconds of the arbitrary time-limit for this made-up activity, one of the blue-helmeted men caught a desperate and unlikely pass by trapping it between his wrist and his forehead.

This uncontrived, un-writable moment led to an interesting development in the overall saga of the sport; minutes later, the lesser of two dueling brothers won his first of what would eventually be two of the special rings that signify the utmost credibility and authority at this activity.

The older brother, recognized by critics as perhaps the greatest ball-throwing genius ever to play, only has one such ring. He is a venerable old man now — nearly thirty-eight — and is doing the best ball-throwing of his life, now for an orange-shirted team, in a last-hour effort to not be shown up by his less talented but more handsome younger brother. Such real-time drama you see nowhere else.

Years earlier, I’m watching alone, at my parents’ house. It’s overtime in the playoffs, and for the moment I’ve forgotten myself. An overconfident team captain, upon winning the coin toss, leans into the official’s microphone and announces live to millions, “We want the ball, we’re gonna score.”

He promptly throws it to a member of the yellow team and ends his organization’s season. In one great supernova of emotion, millions of hearts sing and millions of hearts break, yet the moment is remembered fondly by all of us whose hearts were moved at all.

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Photo by nycmarines


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{ 53 Comments }

Gary Bloom December 24, 2013 at 2:25 am

Great article. Nit: you described the 2008 SB, not the 2006.

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David Cain December 24, 2013 at 8:09 am

Ah you’re right! Fixed.

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kabamba December 24, 2013 at 3:46 am

For a long time I thought one cannot get anything of value from reading “fiction” books. The “non-fiction” section of the library was my only perfect spot in any city I was visiting. Then one day, I cam across Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

I thank all life is “made-up”, even the most “real things” are just stories we make up and then believe. Even elections are made-up activities. So are jobs. :-)

Thanks David.

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David Cain December 24, 2013 at 8:15 am

>Even elections are made-up activities.

Absolutely true. Thanks Christopher.

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Dan December 25, 2013 at 12:04 pm

At first I read that as “electRONs,” and, while your point about political elections remains, misreading it as such had a somewhat more striking effect.

Take constellations. Most people these days would agree that they are just patterns of stars based on our perspective from Earth that we conjure up in our mind’s eye. There are vast distances between each star, and there is nothing – apart from space – connecting them. There is no such a thing as a ‘constellation,’ and the point-of-view from within one of the star systems like – say – Leo would yield a very different patterning in the sky. But, as it stands, they are pattern-stories that we’ve made-up/marked-out and believe.

Now, this isn’t any great revelation and is more readily recognized in modern times (even if we do call them by their designated names for purposes of convenience). But, change your level of magnification, zooming in further and further, and the distances within the atom, and even the “electron” itself, become greater and greater. Quoting Alan Watts at length here:

“And you take a more powerful instrument, and you find that they’re made of molecules, and then you take a still more powerful instrument to find out what the molecules are made of, and you begin to describe atoms, electrons, protons, mesons, all sorts of sub-nuclear particles. But you never, never arrive at the basic stuff. Because there isn’t any.

What happens is this: ‘Stuff’ is a word for the world as it looks when our eyes are out of focus. Fuzzy. Stuff–the idea of stuff is that it is undifferentiated, like some kind of goo. And when your eyes are not in sharp focus, everything looks fuzzy. When you get your eyes into focus, you see a form, you see a pattern. But when you want to change the level of magnification, and go in closer and closer and closer, you get fuzzy again before you get clear. So every time you get fuzzy, you go through thinking there’s some kind of stuff there. But when you get clear, you see a shape. So all that we can talk about is patterns. We never, never can talk about the ‘stuff’ of which these patterns are supposed to be made, because you don’t really have to suppose that there is any. It’s enough to talk about the world in terms of patterns. It describes anything that can be described, and you don’t really have to suppose that there is some stuff that constitutes the essence of the pattern in the same way that clay constitutes the essence of pots. And so for this reason, you don’t really have to suppose that the world is some kind of helpless, passive, unintelligent junk which an outside agency has to inform and make into intelligent shapes. So the picture of the world in the most sophisticated physics of today is not formed stuff–potted clay–but pattern. A self-moving, self-designing pattern. A dance. And our common sense as individuals hasn’t yet caught up with this.”

That isn’t to say these patterns don’t act in a coherent manner. Or that regarding them as such isn’t useful in comprehension and application. But, in a way, “electrons” too are stories we make up and believe about a certain patterning of activity, albeit at the microscopic (from our perspective) level – which makes them that much more convincing. Anyway, sorry to veer a bit off-the-rails, just thought it was a kind of interesting thing to consider.

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Pura Vida Nick December 27, 2013 at 10:55 am

Dan, that is a very interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing!

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 9:18 pm

That was actually really interesting. Thank you.

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Dan December 30, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Happy to share it, David and Pura Vida Nick. Thanks for the kind words!

Amanda December 24, 2013 at 3:48 am

Beautifully written! I am inspired by your writing. But I don’t feel that much of a need to explain my love of watching sports. I just do. When you stop and look at anything for long enough it can start to look a bit dumb and no sport more so than cricket (being Australian, I love cricket). In the longest form of the game, a cricket match can go for 5 days! It’s like matching a chess match taken physical form. Even across 5 long days (interspersed with morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea!!!), there are moments of breathtaking excitement. Moments when we are glued to our radios, televisions and the internet. The great thing about loving sports is that if you learned to love it as a kid, there is something really transformative about it. As an adult there are not that many other moments in everyday life when you hold your breath in quite the same way. Merry Christmas!

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David Cain December 24, 2013 at 8:14 am

Merry Christmas Amanda. When I was in Australia and NZ, I was struck by how much people love cricket. I still know little about it but I’m intrigued by how much of an event fans make out of watching a cricket match. One day I hope to meet some cricket-watching Aussie friends and see the light.

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Sparky December 31, 2013 at 8:48 am

Yep. Cricket was just a weird sport I made fun of until I ended up working with a couple of Australians who were really into it.

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BrownVagabonder December 24, 2013 at 7:46 am

This post reminds me of my incessant need to explain to others why I love reading fiction. I read those books like Hunger Games, and Harry Potter all the time. Being a writer, people always complain to me that I’m reading trash, when I should be reading literature – real writing. I used to feel guilty about reading novels that are just for fun, but now I have given up on explaining myself. I am doing something that gives me pleasure, even if it might seem like a waste of time to others. The hours of joy that I receive from reading such books is worth the disdain that I see in others when they see me reading such books. And it definitely doesn’t reduce my status as a writer.

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David Cain December 24, 2013 at 8:17 am

>I am doing something that gives me pleasure, even if it might seem like a waste of time to others.

This is really the bottom line, and I suppose we don’t need to explain our pleasures. I just wanted to expand on what it is about sport that makes it enjoyable to me, because I think it runs deeper than most people know.

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Michael Gambill December 24, 2013 at 8:30 am

I really do appreciate the things you right and I most always find a deep connection with your ideas. On this one, I find no such affinity.

In my youth I too was an enthusiast for the top American sports but I feel like I “grew up.” At 58 I have little or no interest in all of the hoop-la associated with most sports. Yet as an avid cyclist I now have a modest interest in professional road cycling. However, my interest in it is greatly tempered by the fact that, like all sport, most of the spectacle is contrived, insular, and repetitious. It is to me like reading a novel and although briefly entertaining, it is still fiction and I am hard pressed to become a rabid devotee of such a contrivance. In the end it isn’t the general interest in sport that I find alarmingly shallow, it is the failure to maintain the perspective that it isn’t real life, it is just fiction.

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 9:17 pm

There is a lot about the coverage of sports that I totally hate, and I’ve become pretty good at ignoring it and focusing on what the athletes are doing. That part isn’t fiction as far as I’m concerned, and that’s that part I like.

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Cherry Odelberg December 24, 2013 at 9:01 am

Thank you for reawakening an appreciation for sports. You have caused me to reconsider just how beautiful it can be to play by the rules and win! Or play by the rules and lose – but only temporarily.

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Mzungu December 24, 2013 at 9:02 am

I’ve often wrestled with my emotions for professional sports, usually under the conclusion that the entire thing is a complete waste of my time and energy, but then commonly getting tangled up in a run for the cup, apparently completely out of my control when the time comes!

I guess perhaps the one thing you missed is the financial imbalance of a team like the NY Yankees keeping the playing field from being level, but then as proved by a yet am like the Toronto Maple Leafs, money doesn’t necessarily matter!!

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 8:45 pm

The business surrounding it often leaves a lot to be improved, and I am a great supporter of salary caps.

MLB doesn’t have salary caps, but the NHL does. So the Yankees can have a payroll many times that of, say, Oakland, which I think has too great of an unbalancing effect. The Maple Leafs are the most valuable franchise but they are limited in what they can spend on athlete salaries. But they were crummy even before the salary cap was implemented. Decades-long slumps are an interesting phenomenon.

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Linda December 24, 2013 at 9:58 am

Your article has given me a whole new perspective into the sports world and I sincerely thank you for that. I’ve always been a ‘sometimes’ fan, usually jumping on the wagon for the playoffs. ” Imagine if this was the prevailing culture in government, law enforcement, religion or finance.”, powerful words David!
Wishing you a very Merry Christmas, many blessings and a Happy New Year!

Namaste
Linda

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Oh good! Merry Christmas and happy new year to you too.

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theFIREstarter December 24, 2013 at 10:07 am

Some of best and worst emotions I have been through in my life revolve around watching sports… some might say this is sad but I don’t think so. Golf (now) and Football (Soccer, back in my younger days) are my sports of choice.

The 2012 Ryder cup was perhaps the most dramatic come back I have ever witnessed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Ryder_Cup and is up there as one of the best nights of my life, watching it with friends and sharing a beer, cheering on with millions of other people across Europe!

I work in a sports gambling company so have seen many comebacks from the death, across many sports. It is inspiring every time I see it.

Another great article Mr Cain! Happy Christmas!

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Merry Christmas!

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Harlin December 24, 2013 at 10:43 am

I like sports. I always have. Yes, yes, the unexamined life is not worth living but I refuse to analyze love of sports further.

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Fair enough!

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Dragline December 24, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Very nice article.

The existence and popularity of spectator sports is always one of the most compelling arguments against theories involving self-maximizing rationality, and for theories involving empathy, as the fundamental nature of the human condition.

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 8:49 pm

That’s a really interesting thought. No matter what some people think of sport, we’re as widely attracted to it as we are dancing and music. Empathy is a huge part of sports fanship.

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John December 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Nicely summarized. What is your take on the negative aspects of spectator sports? Like when fans of opposing teams harm each other. Or in Europe where the football fans have firms that are out to seriously harm? To me sports are amazing as we are all sharing in a human spectacle together as you said. But it’s also amazing how narrow minded and meaningless it all is, especially when it comes to fighting about it.

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 8:52 pm

If you’re referring to post-match riots and soccer hooliganism I think it’s horrible, but I think it has more to do with alcoholism than with sports. Sporting events do create large congregations of people, which always presents a danger. It is far worse in some cultures than with others, which leads me to believe that it has more to do with local social norms than with whether they are sporting or non-sporting events.

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Shannon December 24, 2013 at 12:59 pm

“I never experienced firsthand the glory of repeated car-circlings, but I recognize it’s something I am missing, not something that isn’t there.” I love that line in particular, especially since you can replace “repeated car-circlings” with anything that any person is or has ever been enthused by. :)

While reading the article, I also couldn’t help noticing a lot of parallels between sports and video games (which is my own “repeated car-circlings” substitution of choice). Controlled universe with rigidly defined rules, unpredictable plot twists written in real time, etc. It’s especially apparent in online multiplayer games, where in some cases you’re arbitrarily assigned to a team with a completely randomly selected set of players.

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Video games are often criticized for their ultimate uselessness too, and they do exist in similarly contained systems. Serious gamers I’ve met tend to be pretty happy people from what I can see.

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Lady Tam December 24, 2013 at 1:25 pm

I don’t care if a person likes or doesn’t like sports. The only time I have a problem with it is if they act as if their interest in sports somehow makes them superior to my interest in anything that isn’t sports. (video games, reading, whatever.)

I *do* get tired of certain colors being virtually unusable, lest I be labeled a fan of one infamous team or another. But, other than these two things, I really don’t care.

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 8:57 pm

I don’t like that either, but that seems to me to just be generic rudeness. I feel the same when pedantic people talk about the importance of watching the news or following politics.

The colors thing is unfamiliar to me. I’ve never had a problem with being called a fan of a particular team from a color alone.

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Mark V. McDonnell December 24, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Sorry, David, still don’t get it. Your arguments would carry if you were talking about *playing* a game or *participating* in a sport. Why you’d (anybody’d) care to watch someone, apart from a loved one, do those things is still beyond me. (And I’m a retired coach!)

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Steven December 24, 2013 at 10:17 pm

This article was written to describe test match cricket.

5, long days to complete one match.

Every second, riveting.

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Cricket intrigues me because of its epic longness. I’ll have to learn how it works one day.

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Tim January 8, 2014 at 6:16 am

And of course, after the 5 days it is quite possible for the match to end ‘Undecided’ if no team gets bowled out twice…

(This is of course not the same as having a drawn Test Match, which has only happened twice in history.)

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David December 24, 2013 at 10:42 pm

When high school sports don’t draw money away from drama and choir and other equally-valuable activities (which they do), I will consider your arguments.
When college teams (in the USA at least, I don’t know about Canada) can support themselves independently by their own ticket and merchandise sales (which they do not), I will consider your arguments.
When professional teams stop whisking concussion injuries and other unconscionable injuries under the rug in the name of “the team” or whatever the excuse is, I will consider your arguments.
In the meantime, the entire issue of sport, with very small exceptions, is wrapped up in the almighty dollar, and any excuses for it either have to acknowledge that involvement or say “yeah, it’s about money, so what?”

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 9:01 pm

These are all issues with the prevailing business culture in the USA. America is ridiculous in its worship of money and economic value and this warps much more than just sport.

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Teresa December 25, 2013 at 7:00 am

I have to admit at first I was not too enthused with the subject matter until you started to broaden the scope and then began to understand the point. My life long passion has always been horse racing but it is suffering from a slow death due to numerous factors that to some make it a joke. I myself have had doubts that it can survive much longer due to these social pressures. Regardless, I still maintain support. But now, having read your piece, I have a renewed sense of enthusiasium. You put proffessional sports back into contex for me. Despite the critics, I will continue my personal persuit of those glorious moments when the unknowable outcome is in my favor, when the grit and strength of jockey and mount become unified to beat the odds. A glorious moment that can I just can’t get enough of. Thanks…..and best wishes for the holidays!!!

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Yes, the point of the article is to view the value of uniqueness of sport itself as a storytelling medium. So I encourage people to consider it aside from the surrounding marketing, which is a function of what society allows its businesses to do. I’m no fan of unregulated capitalism and almost all of the criticisms people have made in the comments are of this type of business philosophy, and not sport itself. Happy holidays to you too Teresa!

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Peter December 25, 2013 at 9:59 am

Being an athlete, and being an exceptional athlete that is well-viewed on the telly is very good compensation. So society obviously puts a good value on it. They entertain the masses, and children are encouraged to participate. That participation leads to friendships, lessons in team work, and for me playing sports until about age 30, it filled a void of excitement. So I suppose that the play goes on, the sports-related metaphors keep springing up in conversation, and the colorful uniformed dramas make people tune in. Thanks for your exceptional writing.

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Thanks for chiming in Peter. I believe the competition involved in team sport is good for people, but the economic competitions surrounding the field are often not.

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Dan December 25, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Love the article, but I have a lot more difficult enjoying Division I college sports than the pros because a majority of those young men are being used and will get nothing in return. From an early age they are encouraged to chase the dream of a college scholarship and even those who attain it rarely graduate with a meaningful degree. I am not in favor of paying these student-athletes, just making sure that they are students capable of performing college level work. I believe the best way to insure this is to make every scholarship renewal every 4 years. If the athletes transfers or quits the scholarship is given to the general student body until the 5th year when it returns to the athletic department.

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 9:13 pm

The way college athletes are handled is ridiculous, and I thought it was pretty clear in the article that I wasn’t defending the methods employed by the institutions surrounding the play of the game. There is enough wrong with them to inspire entire sections of bookstores.

If some of these issues create moral issues with your watching certain leagues, I understand that.

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Ivan Izo December 28, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Thanks for the article David. I’m one of those non-sports fans, but I have had times when I could really get into a sport. When I lived in Toronto and the Blue Jays were in the playoffs, for example. There’s something about everyone around you being enthused that is contagious. I can see where you’re coming from. The game is always going to be ttue. There’s no manipulation by an author making sure the good guys (your team) will win. But, I happen to like the manipulation done by authors and won’t be converted. There’s only so much time in the day and there are so many new novels and authors. Your post has helped me see better what it is people get out of watching sports. Thanks again.

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David Cain December 29, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Oh I don’t mean to argue that sports is better than literature. If I had to choose between sports and books for the rest of my life I’d choose books in a second. But sports do create an unique kind of real-time narrative which I like a lot.

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Heather December 31, 2013 at 6:02 pm

I just have to reflect on the bad taste I get in my mouth around sportsfandom. On the radio I remember it being said that real sports fans like the Olympics. It’s just pure sportsmanship without too much of the tribal mentality. Because there is that pure feeling you talk about, and then there is all the culture that is fed to people when they are young that connects them to “their” team; when they have so much attachment and feeling around that particular team and then not have that feeling towards other teams. The association between a physical location and a sports team culture (because it’s not like the players are from that location), and the personal attachment to that is so strange.

I don’t know… for me there is too much around football and baseball that I feel encourages some kind of barbarian behavior. I remember a few months ago waiting for the bus and a group clad in jerseys, on their way to watch game presumably, and the guys were just going down the street acting like @$$#$, being really loud and bossing people around as the group moved down the street. Now, maybe they would do this anyway, but I’m suspicious if they didn’t have the jerseys on, they wouldn’t be acting like that.

While watching my first superbowl with my first sportsfan boyfriend – otherwise gentlemanly guys would periodically say these asinine sexist remarks during the game, before remembering there was a female in the room, then a “sorry!” would immediately follow. And this would repeat and repeat. Something about the thing seems to culturally go along with this thuggy male UGGH! thing. Now, maybe guys “need” this outlet – I don’t know. Something about the dudes on the couch and the ladies making food for them culture just grosses me out.

A male friend told me once how liberated he felt once he got off the addiction of watching sports all Sunday afternoon, and now he had time for personal development and hobbies!

Now that I’ve been seeing sportsfandom in action, especially with the things that go tandem with it like the fantasy football and baseball — yikes, what a time-suck! It’s like a part-time job, and I think is a great cultural lubricant to coat over people’s spare time and mind-space so the don’t self-reflect. And that’s a fantastic cultural tool to keep things the way they are.

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David Cain January 2, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Hmm, all of the ugly behaviors you describe are just plain rudeness. I don’t see what this has to do with sports, other than that it is usually a gathering of males. When males who have sexist things to say gather around anything (whether it’s a television with sports on it or a souped-up truck) they are more likely to say those things when there are more men around and fewer women around. If you want to pin that on sports itself, then okay, but it has nothing to do with what I’m talking about here.

As for the topic of fanship being a time-sink, it can be. Anything that can eat up a lot of time has to be managed. That’s one of the things I like most about NFL. The happenings are confined mostly to Sundays, for only about a third of the year. That’s enough for me, and that’s all the television I watch. I have plenty of time for reflection.

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Brad January 1, 2014 at 10:38 am

I enjoyed this article (like all of yours), and my view on the sports issue is a little more nuanced now than it might have otherwise been. Having said that, it’s still hard to not look down on sports watching in general for me. I still associate it too strongly with individuals who spend most of their free time watching other men engaging in physical activity while they personally suffer from never exercising and with individuals who care very deeply about sports matters and seek to become educated in them while completely ignoring political, economic, moral, and philosophical matters which actually affect their daily lives.

I also think the attitudes and mentality present in watching a sporting event, basically the attitude of ‘us vs them’ that you mention is quite harmful, and is not something that people need to be practicing. As discussed in Chomsky’s Manufacturing of Consent (see for quick <1 min video snippet : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzQwrY0qD98), [sports is] "training in irrational jingoism". I think there's a lot of truth to this view.

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David Cain January 2, 2014 at 3:24 pm

Thanks for the video. I think it could conceivably go both ways. You could suppose sports fanship trains people to apply irrational jingoism to other areas of life, or it could make clear to fans how silly “us and them” really is outside of sports. That’s what it has done for me and it’s why I wrote this article.

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Manny Dodeca January 6, 2014 at 1:30 am

“caught a desperate and unlikely pass by trapping it between his wrist and his forehead”

Tyree trapped it between whichever body part it was and his *helmet*, not his forehead.

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Patrick Wu January 20, 2014 at 5:51 pm

I think the transcendental (one even could say religious) experience of collective unity of feeling can be experienced in other events too, such as tournaments involving any sort of game (the nature of which I think you were trying to describe here) or a music concert or festival. That sense of shared experience is definitely a driving force for us little beings. An essay that I read which talks about this at length is Nietzsche’s first work ‘The Birth of Tragedy’. Thanks for the article David, always a great read.

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Krobelus February 16, 2014 at 11:34 pm

I agree with what you said about sports as a form of escape from our harsh reality, to that of a clean and contained artificial universe that allows us to simulate competition.

However, I believe profiteering and money making is the true cornerstone of sports in this age. Without money, sports will not grow ad evolve to its current form. Money has always been the blood of sports, not people. Athletes are temporal and replaceable. Many people indulge in the illusion of worshipping athletes, projecting exaggerated ideals unto them and becoming a hero.

Athletes become heroes because they are champions of their worshippers. However, a champion’s favour is not lost when he is conquered by another, rather it is when his marketability drops. Then he is replaced by another. Some of them are branded as wolves, tigers, sharks and lions, but ultimately, these animals are nothing more than mere livestock, fed to the demand of starving masses and rented to the highest bidder. They are sacrificial lambs that are fed and dressed with a premium stamp to be devoured until their tender meats are overworked and sucked until dryness.

Fairness in sport itself is an illusion. Besides the athletes, the outcomes of sport is also determined by money. Businessmen, organizations and mafias spend many hours running down the numbers, analyzing figures, painstakingly drawing and interpreting graphs so they can shape, from the shadows, the outcome with the highest revenue.

I wouldn’t really call this corruption. The word corruption is meaningless since millions of people involved have wilfully ignored this fact and chose to agree that this make believe universe is fair and just. I admire the creators of these games for coming up with such a lucrative business-model where they can profit with no moral apprehensions. The only concept of unfairness in this alternate reality is in the form of performance enhancing drugs, not embezzlement or any of the sort.

However, it is quite sorrowing for me that the sporting culture will come at an end with the advent of digital games and e-sports. I believe the market will shift drastically in a few decades and cater to a new breed of athlete, which is the gamer. There are a plethora of wonderful things that digital games have that traditional sports could never ever achieve. First is that you can kill and suffer no moral consequence whatsoever. It is delighting that digital games can have any rule and therefore take any shape. It has the capacity to exceed physical sports in terms of escapism and immersion in a completely different world. Better yet is the very creative ways, many businesses come up on how to make the most money out of it. It will be a completely different world. I am excited to see the ruin and end of physical sports. Aren’t you? :D

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