Root, root, root for…some team or other

Posted on May 15, 2010

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An uncharitable, but not wholly inaccurate, line on This Sporting Life is that it’s all about how to be a sports snob while still being a genuine sports fan. Of course, nobody wants to admit they’re a snob. (“Connoisseur” is so much more urbane.) If you’re into the themes of this blog, you really like following sports, lots of sports. You love the drama, the flashes of beauty, the strategic challenges, and the excitement. You find it meaningful. And yet, you could care less about a number of sports that seem inferior, or at any rate, do not draw you in. This is in part because you believe there are better and worse sports and ways of engaging with sports; just as there are better or worse movies or bands or operas or wines, and more or less sophisticated ways of appreciating them.

Your interest is piqued by many classic types of sports arguments — both the kind that concern events and options within a game, and those that arise about the games, sports, rules, players, managers, or the impact of all of this on your society. These arguments and debates seem worth having, they are about real human values and emotions, even when they are also kind of fun, annoying, or frivolous (like whether Brett Favre will return for another season, and whether it matters that he gets to skip training camp by playing Hamlet again — OK, maybe that one isn’t actually worth having in 2010). And yet, you are frustrated by how quickly the debates reach a stalemate between opposing camps of pundits and former jocks who have no chance of convincing each other. (Shouldn’t there be some more abstract “principles” available to help settle some of these issues?)

You are bewildered by people — even friends and colleagues who are just like you in so many other ways — who have no interest whatsoever in spectator sports. And you get downright annoyed when they scoff at you, or at sports fans in general, for wasting so much time on the couch when you all could be doing something more… meaningful… even if that just means watching movies, reading books, cooking elaborate meals, or gardening.

Yet at the same time, you probably harbor secret doubts that maybe you do spend rather too much time following these sporting seasons. Isn’t there something kind of perverse about caring so much about who is going to win a championship this year, even though two days after the winner is determined, the whole matter will drain quietly from your consciousness? Quick: who won the men’s and women’s finals at the US Open (tennis) last year? Who won the last World Cup?

You are really quite unlike another kind of sports snob who wears his or her fandom for some particular sport, perhaps even just for some particular team, like a kind of signature tweed jacket with leather patches. There’s something about that game — its look and feel, and the role it plays in the snob’s culture — that draws him or her in and makes him or her flaunt and fetishize the affiliation. But this kind of snob isn’t really a sports fan. If baseball is their thing, for example, they will scoff at the mindless pleasures of the football fan with at least as much scorn as the anti-fan, mentioned earlier. That’s fine: people don’t have to be sports fans. But if someone accuses you of being a sports snob, you don’t want to lumped in with that kind of sports snob.

OK, dear reader, I think we understand each other. We get each other. So why exactly do we like sports so much, anyway? What do we get out of it? Why do we think the anti-fans are out to lunch — or worse, missing out on something truly important in modern existence?

Toward the end of my last rant against hockey broadcasting I dropped the following suggestion about what we seek in sporting events beyond the adrenalin-fueled excitement the networks often assume we are tuning in for. In two related rhetorical question I “asked”:

Should we not presume that there is, in some quasi-aesthetic sense, a “higher” pleasure in sports spectatorship when it is based on a “truer” understanding of what is actually happening? That a “true” fan will not settle merely for the excitement and drama of seeing an uncertain situation resolved (i.e. by the final buzzer), but will want to understand as much as possible why the result happened, or what the losing team ought to have done to get a better result?

I am suspicious of the answer behind that fausse question. This sounds too much like a presumption in favor of the philosopher’s lifestyle predicament. As when the Victorian philosopher J.S. Mill declared that there was a higher pleasure in being “Socrates dissatisfied” than in being “a fool satisfied.”

But there is surely something to the quest for discovering and appreciating the complexity, and the brilliant attempt to deal with the complexity, in sports, as in art. Don’t we all vague recall when we discovered in childhood that you didn’t really “play” bingo; that it played you? And how from that instant on it lost all of its excitement?

And yet, the thrill and drama of sports doesn’t merely come from observing athletes and coaches grappling with the strategic complexity in the face of uncertainty. We do not sit over sporting matches the way an entomologist watches over an ant colony. We actually have to be engaged in a rather peculiar way: we have to cheer for one side or the other. We may like both teams or players, but we cannot fully enjoy watching a match until we become partisans — until we really start to identify personally with the stakes at play for one team, and with the (hopefully complex) challenges they face. Until their “thrill of victory” and “agony of defeat” become ours.

But how philistine is that?!

Isn’t automatic identification with the protagonist, for example, one of the impulses that a sophisticated “fan” of literature learns to resist? Isn’t the detachment from the protagonist something that distinguishes the reader of literature from the reader of Harlequin Romances? Isn’t one of the things that distinguishes a “student of film” from someone who merely “likes movies” that the former’s evaluation of the film does not hang on whether he or she likes or sympathizes with the central character? Shouldn’t a “sports connoisseur” strive for a similar detachment?

Um, no. Being non-partisan is not a virtue for a true sports fan. We don’t have to apologize for that, but it does surely merit some further reflection….

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