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When a local sports teams is in the playoffs, or when a new season starts, some of my friends (including maybe you) post to Facebook, “GO [LOCAL SPORTS TEAM]]!!!” or “Knock em dead, [local sports star]”.

Other folks, however, (also, maybe you) pretend that they don’t know what’s going on; “There’s lots of traffic on the bridge today … is there some sort of SPORTS-BALL event going on?”, or simply post things like “Uggghhh I hate sports”.  Some people seem to think that large-scale organized spectator sports are a waste of money, energy, and attention that could be better spent on “real” life, and that sports needlessly create competitiveness, violence, and aggression.

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Sports-disliking friends seem to get especially unhappy:

(1) when sports-related riots occur, and vehicles get arsoned and windows get smashed.

(Riots like that sometimes happen after a team loses a big game and fans feel let down, but they more often occur after the team wins and the fans feel like euphoric “champions” and that they have permission for a no-rules, Devil’s-Night, dionysian celebration.)

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(2) when there is violence between fans of one team and those of another. Local attention in the Bay Area was captured by the Dodgers fans who famously beat a Giants fan into a coma in the LA stadium’s parking lot four years ago, and the Giants fans who stabbed and killed a Dodgers fan at Third and Harrison two years later. And there’s the decades of street battles between hooligan football casuals/armies/firms.

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(3) when public governments give over hundreds of millions of dollars to build a stadium for use by a privately owned and profitable sports franchise

(4) when fans spend long hours obsessing in loving detail over statistics, rosters, contract details, and fantasy teams, and have long discussions about which players and teams “have the momentum”, “showed more guts”, and “wanted it more” – meanwhile tuning out art, culture, politics, exercise, hobbies, chores, their family, eating healthy, and hygiene.

So – SPORTS SUCK.432323_10151263393585078_527979935_n

Another way of looking at it, though, begins with observing that most of human history has been full of warfare. Wars have gone on for tens of thousands of years between different ethnic groups, between different religions, and, most often, between tribes, clans, villages, cities, regions, and nations who might look relatively similar to an outside observer. If you are over age twenty, and if you had lived five hundred or five thousand years ago, I would guess that we would probably have fought in, or otherwise experienced, a number of horrifying wars by your age.

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We modern, educated humans are generally more rational, evolved, and civilized than the chaotic people from back then, but we also still have plenty of violent, territorial mammal left in us. And, when you think of it that way, large-scale organized spectator sports don’t create competitiveness and territoriality – they constructively channel them. And they don’t create aggression, violence, and bloodshed – they, by and large, prevent them.

Rooting for large-scale organized spectator sports teams is a sublimation the warrior spirit of a community and a civilized expression of its pride and aggression. For folks who get into them, sports elicit emotions of identity and they express regional loyalties: each game feels to fans like “this is a war in which our village is sending our brave young men into battle against the evil horde from the other village”; home games feel like “these athletes are our line of defense, protecting our turf from invasion”.

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6a0133f3a4072c970b017c367721f5970b-550wiCompared to the devastation, injuries, and deaths that happen in real war – where whole tribes and cities have been enslaved, ransacked, destroyed, killed – the cost in money, destruction, and blood of sports-y pretend-wars is comparatively minuscule. Fans of the baseball teams that don’t make the playoffs don’t have their homes torched and their daughters abducted; they just usually just turn their attention over to the NFL a month earlier.

Sometimes sports games take on a historical significance. The Maryland vs Virginia rivalry is a symbolic war between people just over the Mason-Dixon line from each other. FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid is Catalonia fighting for independence from Castilla. Iraq and Iran have played some tough Asia Cup games against each other, and Germany and Poland played a vicious game in the 1974 World Cup qualifiers. Again, given humanity’s history, large-scale organized spectator sports are preferable to the alternative ways that people have acted out territorial aggression throughout history.

Fans often identify with and get, well, fanatical about the players that represent their city or school, even if the players grew up a thousand miles away, even if the players fought for a hated rival team the previous season, and even if the players are staying a residence hotel out by the airport because they know that they’ll be playing for somebody else next season. Sometimes people say that being a sports fan is “rooting for laundry”, because, at the core of it, we are cheering on the team uniform, with our city or school’s name on the front, more than we are cheering on the semi-random collection of individual players from all over the world that our team has recruited, drafted, signed, or traded for.

Sometimes players try to reassure the fans that they are actually invested in the city and its pride, and that they are not just hired gladiator mercenaries working for a paycheck. This is their motivation for sometimes saying to reporters things like, “We’re playing for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back” or “We play for the best fans in the world, it’s a privilege to get your support each day we come out”.

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As I said above, I’ve seen people unhappy with public financing of stadiums for private sports franchises. And I’ve also seen sports fans unhappy if governments meddle with the affairs of local teams. But I feel that the relationship of pro sports teams with the public is different than it is between most other corporations and the public – people don’t riot when Proctor and Gamble fails to make its quarterly projections, and cities don’t hold joyful parades when International Harvester wins new market share. I sometimes think of pro sports teams as something more like a public utility than simply another corporation. So, when I hear about governments having an unusually close relationship with sports franchises, it generally seems fine to me.

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As an aside: I’m a big league baseball fan. I love watching it, I love reading about it, and I love thinking about it. I get of course that it’s a children’s game played by millionaires, I get that the guys playing for the Giants probably aren’t actually morally better people than the guys playing for the LA Dodgers, I get that Buster Posey grew up in Georgia and a Braves fan, and I get it that the whole thing is ultimately meaningless. But, for me, that doesn’t spoil the magic.

I see each major league baseball season as a gripping and work of dramatic narrative improvisational theater, one that is about 7,500 hours long and contains about 1,500 characters, and that the audience only catches a fraction of all the storylines until it all comes to a focused conclusion in the World Series. (And then five short months later, a new and equally epic improvisational piece of art gets staged.)

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1 Comment

  1. As a fellow baseball fan (Cardinals) and football supporter (Chiefs) – and simultaneously, gasp, a mindful person – I am in full agreement and fully enjoyed this post. Coming in I would say I shared almost identical sentiments, but I hadn’t worked all the way through it, and this helped clarify something for me a little bit. I sometimes am far too gluttonous with my sports habits (when my team is good; when the playoffs come around), or if, say, I am feeling rutted in life I may lean on sports as a crutch that I tend to view as a largely meaningless distraction. But a lot of that negativity stems from my own inability to (sometimes) show any semblance of moderation. You’re right; as a war proxy, sport beats the holy hell out of the alternative and I appreciate attending to that authentic tribal, primal spark which draws me and you and millions of other (mostly) dudes to sport. Maybe if I honor it a little more I might be able to exercise greater and more beneficial discipline. Except of course football season just started, and St. Louis is in the stretch run towards the MLB playoffs so maybe after October is over then …

    Also, I was reminded reading this post of a passage from Idries Shah’s ‘The Sufis,’ where he discusses rites and rituals and opens by describing the fever pitch at a soccer match … “[The fans] reaction to the ecstatogenic processes being enacted in their midst is so explosive at times that one wonders why they do not spill over into the sacred enclosure. Both joy and sorrow are manifested among the votaries.” See chapter titled “Strange Rites”; p.206 https://books.google.com/books?id=S6pLvb5FYE0C&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

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