Why We Watch Sports

NJ DevilsThis morning I listened to two fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders (Canadian Football League) talk about how they had supported their team for forty years despite the fact it had only won the Grey Cup twice in all that time.

It reminded me of my experience as a young child going to football games with my father. He organized a bus that picked up about 30 fans from the area of Winnipeg in which we lived, drove us to the game and then back home again afterwards. I would often fall asleep on the bus on the way home, but I loved every moment of this experience, even though I wasn’t much of a football fan. I knew all the players’ names by heart, however.

In the winter seasons I would watch all the Montreal Canadiens hockey games, in black and white on TV Saturday nights, since we had no local professional hockey team in Winnipeg. Because of the time difference we would never see the first period, since it would have interfered with the dinnertime CBC news, which was sacrosanct. My walls were covered with black-and-white photos of Les Habitants best players like Boom Boom Geoffrion and Rocket Richard, most of them signed by the stars themselves. My parents were forced to buy hundreds of boxes of teas and dessert mixes so I could get the treasured plastic Hockey Coins inside, each depicting one of the 120 active players in the NHL at that time.

In my adult years I ceased to be a sports fan, preferring to play rather than watch, and while I still partake of hockey playoff pools, I rarely watch sports of any kind. I briefly cheered on the Toronto Blue Jays during their two back-to-back World Series championships, and got to know all the players then, but a year later they were all but forgotten. For all kinds of reasons I am boycotting the corrupt freakshow propaganda circus called the Olympics, this and every year.

I’ve tried to figure out why I watched sports, and why so many still do, but it’s hard to fathom. Although for many Americans (and Chinese) winning seems to be everything, fans in most of the rest of the world seem to enjoy the sport no matter who wins. The endless kitsch of propagandist Hollywood movies where American (“Yoo-Ess-Ay!”) team X or individual athlete Y overcomes staggering odds to become the champion (at the last moment, when all seems lost), and in the process he/they find true love, just makes me nauseous. (When the underdog-turned-champ is a Canadian, or a furry animal, it’s no better.)

There is something at work here besides insecure nationalistic vicarious competitiveness. Why do we watch sports?

I started paying attention to my own occasional spectator behaviour. I noticed that I was more attentive when “my” team was on offense than when they were on defense. After the game I felt the same no matter which team or individual won, unless there was some cruel injustice served up by cheaters or corrupt or inept officials, in either team’s favour, in which case I was sullen. The Hollywood movies play on this relentlessly, of course, since it’s a cheap way to stir up audiences. Hollywood does the same in the endless and banal “women as victim” movies, which are essentially identical to the sports propaganda movies except they involve women losers-turned-victors instead of men, and take place in homes and courtrooms instead of arenas.

But when it was just a game, and I somehow got caught up in it, it was a wonderful feeling at the end of the event (barring having to face terrible traffic going home). The more I thought about it, the more I concluded that we love to watch sports for two reasons that have nothing to do with competition:

  1. Shared ‘expertise’: Real fans know who’s playing, and everything about them, and what they’re good and bad at. Armchair quarterbacks all, what they love, and love talking about, is what they know about the game, the expertise they share. We all love to be an expert, especially knowledgeable about something, and there is no easier way (with the possible exception of blogging?) to become known and respected as something of an expert than to study and follow a sports team.
  2. Affinity: We all love to belong, and sports teams are not called “clubs” for nothing. We are social animals, and we love to wear insignia that give us instant affinity with others, something to smile and talk about with strangers, and hence become friends. We actually spend more on sports affinity paraphernalia than we spend on tickets.

Alas, in the context of ‘professional’ sports all of this comes at a major cost. Propagandists (from political thugs to opportunist corporatist advertisers) have exploited sports to the point of ruin, and disgust. Ticket prices for professional teams are obscene, relegating all but the elite who can tax-deduct them to the bleachers and TV screens. Most professional sports are replete with cheaters (drug users — performance-enhancing and pain-numbing — and judge bribers), bullies, and arrogant hacks both on the field and in the media. To come second is a disgrace, the media tell us — heads should roll. And the health and fitness level of sports watchers who would never dream of actually playing a sport is abysmal.

The solution, I think, is to find entertainments that provide us with the opportunity for affinity and to develop an impressive expertise, that are not competitive. That is, entertainments (like ballooning, hiking, and theatre-going — other than to theatres that show the aforementioned Hollywood schlock) in which there are no winners and losers, only good, enjoyable performances and those that could be improved (and we’re all armchair critics) and which, most importantly, are participative, both for our health and for our level of social and intellectual engagement.

I keep saying we need to re-learn to entertain ourselves. We suffer from a dreadful imaginative poverty in our modern world. We are unfit, both physically and in our creative and critical thinking capacity. For all our information sources, we are appallingly ignorant about history, geography, the arts, science, and what is going on in the world. And we are fiercely, unnecessarily and destructively competitive.

From now on, every time I am tempted to watch a “spectator sport”, or a mass media information or entertainment production, I am going to stop myself and ask: What could I be doing instead that is more collaborative, and more participative, and take myself off the sidelines and out of the chair and into action, doing something, cooperatively, with others.

I hope you will too. There is a difference between entertainment and fun, and we’re buying far too much of the former and taking part far toolittle in the latter.

Category: Our Culture
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3 Responses to Why We Watch Sports

  1. Um. No.Two short stories.1. I was in Memphis about a month ago. The Redbirds (local triple-A baseball team) were playing in their nice new downtown stadium. I went three nights in a row.It was perfection. I had a seat on the first base side, even with home plate, about 6 rows in. The games proceeded at their pace, the crowd came in and cheered and chatted, the vendors sold me some hot nuts and a beer or Coke, and I simply appreciated the act, the art, of the sort. Watching Stansberry stroke a double down the left field line is a thing of beauty. http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_downes/26980583032. It’s late at night. I’m listening to the Blue Jays game on the radio. They’re playing in Detroit and there’s a rain delay. The announcers come on, they update the other scores around the rest of the league, talk a bit about the current game, and then engage in a conversation on the game itself, some proposed rule changes, whether they should be undertaken, who they would favour, that sort of thing. Arcania. And at the end of the conversation, a good ten of fifteen minutes later, they wrapped up, and the announcer said, “I hope you enjoyed that.” And I realized, I had enjoyed that, not because of the topic, necessarily, but because it was simply high quality conversation – two knowledgable people having a friendly discussion about something that interested them.So I don’t think *my* enjoyment of sports, at least, has anything to do with the expertise or the affinity (and certainly very little to do with the competition).I think, for me, sport is like art. I appreciate the beauty, the artistry, the spectacle, the grace. And whether this is expressed in the game itself, the setting, or the coverage, it’s all the same to me – and actually, the totality of this is what really brings it together.When I am sitting on a perfect summer evening watching a game andthat little voice says, “What could I be doing instead that is more collaborative, and more participative,” I have learned to say, “nothing.”Because, you know, it (life, and all that) is not about being “more collaborative, and more participative.” It’s about those moments of beauty, when the lead-off hitter strokes a double down the left field line, the runner scores from first in a cloud of dust, and this event, unknown to all of us in the second inning, will be what decides the issue in a 1-0 game.The spectator is what makes any of this worth doing at all.Not seeing that is, in an important way, not to see.

  2. Hmmm… you seem to have quite a fondness for sports… I hope you don’t mind if I spice things up in this comments thread by offering an opinion which contrasts with yours quite a bit. Myself, I have always found it difficult to understand what drew people to play or watch most of our popular national sporting genres, in the usa. I’m a very physically active person myself, and from personal experience I think it actually somewhat ludicrous to see people hero-worshipping athletes who are in reality doing more to damage their bodies, than they are to make them healthier. Runners are on a course to damaging their knees; baseball uses a dangerous projectile; football is a sport which glorifies aggression. The one exception to this disillusionment I have felt about sports has been soccer… there’s no need to risk anything playing that game… the most that could happen is some stinging red skin when the ball swats you. It’s a fast game, and requires a lot of physical coordination and complex team effort. It can be played in the rain and the mud, and that’s quite fun.I also think back to my childhood, and the neighbor boy who was in my class with me at my elementary school; he had a very interesting relationship to sports. He became an avid basketball player over the years. It seems to me that his parents found that activity for him, because they thought it would help him work out his hyperactivity. I kind of think that sports teams for kids are often run by folks who feel like they are answering a need in those kids’ lives – in this manner. But as I see it, they are teaching those kids lots of wrong attitudes, perspectives and approaches to life. Kids need to be nurtured, and to learn to nurture others… this is quite the opposite of what is taught be sports team coaches. They exhortat kids to overextend themselves on behalf of some goal that isn’t tangibly constructive in serving to uplift the society around them. The real world doesn’t work through competition, it works through cooperation. Finally, arrogance about one’s own team (or nation, or employer, or race, etcetera), or a foolhardy over estimation of your skills are both really awkward attitudes for folks to take with them as they go on into adulthood.As a tangent, I kind of think that the politicians we have in north america have gleaned a lot of their approaches to elections, and political gambits through thinking about sports. They debate hotly, rather than discuss rationally with an intention of actually coming to a productive consensus, because it’s all about competition and their desire for their side to dominate at the end of the day.Sorry about my negative perception of sports; I guess I am tired of playing the sycophant around such cultural rituals which I really don’t think do much to give folks a good vision for their society. I realize your opinion and your experience with sports is quite different.There was a great CBC rewind podcast from the 1980s – an “Ideas” series episode about sports (mp3) which I stumbled upon recently, and which readers of this blog entry might enjoy listening to.

  3. Kamil says:

    when you wrote ‘What could I be doing instead that is more collaborative, and more participative, and take myself off the sidelines and out of the chair and into action, doing something, cooperatively, with others’ it made me think why I answer the question ‘do you like football’ with ‘yes I love to play but don’t like to watch’.I prefer to participate, collaborate and get of my chair to play myself. I keep fit, I’m part of the time and the game is real with me in it on the pitch and not in the TV box or just from the sidelines cheerign.More on the commodyfing of recreation and sport.http://www.infed.org/thinkers/william_alexander_smith.htmYouth workers now may look at drill as the exclusive preserve of the cadets and brigades and it may be that this is due to the excellent tradition we have built up of street games, cooperative games and so on. The New Games Foundation, for example, emphasises fun, and

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