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.
Photo by nycmarines