Our Love of Sports – as Personal Regression

It is late February.  The Super Bowl, that heartiest and least complicated of holidays, has come and gone. In this year’s version, some perennial favorites quarterbacked by a future Hall-of-Famer confronted a group of scrappy upstarts led by a backup. Surprisingly, the upstarts won.  As his part of it, the author (like millions of his fellow countrymen) attended a party where revelers aligned themselves with one side or the other, hooted and hollered, abused the officials, and indulged in all manner of comestibles, including the ubiquitous wings.  At the event’s conclusion, there was general acknowledgment, even by those who had not spectated for a moment, that it had been a “good game.” People said their goodbyes, wandered out to their cars, and steering carefully (for there had been modest drinking) made it home.

Time, at least the sort of time we impose on ourselves, moves on.  Now, we are in in the final days of the Winter Olympics.  Norway, an oil-rich and socially beneficent country of five million, has proven itself dominant, at least in the sports that require steely resolve. Other countries from northern climes, including a semi-official group called “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” compete for the medals that remain.  Oddly, onlookers turn their attentions to activities they have not thought about during the last four years.  Knowledge circulates about half-pipe, luge, and curling.  Commentators explain the intricacies of every maneuver and maintain the pretense that competitors emerge from nowhere for this shining moment.  Slow-motion videography is all.  Last night, in the crown jewel of the games, women’s figure skating, a fifteen-year-old girl from Russia edged out her compatriot, an elderly woman of eighteen, for the gold.

Soon enough, other sports will move into the limelight.  Already baseball’s spring training has begun.  Ahead is the weeks-long tournament of college basketball, the euphonious “March Madness”. Golf’s Masters is grooming its course.  Hockey, professional basketball, horseracing, and other activities await their times of acclaim.  Spring is in the air. 

Those who follow sports – and the author is among that number – know well that sporting spectacles impose a rhythm to existence.  In that sense, they function like religious and patriotic holidays, times when people suspend their routine commitments to contemplate other matters.  In the case of sports, those specimen days center on the “big game,” when most viewers pick a favorite and feel their spirits rise and fall as the event proceeds.  That act of identification makes the affair something to anticipate, savor, and remember, albeit with mixes of pleasure and regret. Whatever one’s satisfaction with the results, it is pleasing to know that the event in question will return the following year at the same time.  Next year, or so we tell ourselves, our team – and thus we ourselves – will be in the winner’s circle. 

Be clear that sports, at least as the vast spectator pageants just described, do not appeal to everyone, However, they do resonate with countless millions who consider themselves practitioners, followers, and fans, if only of one or two game forms.  Who has not played some sport and felt the pleasures (and pains) of bodily commitment?  Common, for both boys and girls today, is participation in organized athletic leagues.  Televised sport is indoor scenery in many restaurants and bars. To be in public is to see jersey-clad people wandering through malls, buoyant hopefuls spilling out of sporting goods stores, cars with team pennants streaming along expressways, and tailgaters in parking lots spreading their wares.  Sports equipment and promotional material – proudly displayed in bedrooms, dens, and even living rooms – is ultimately the equipment of self.

An Outside View.  Why do so many of us enjoy sports – and, more tellingly, find it expected that we should do so?  A social scientist like myself might argue that sporting events – like other public rituals – are occasions for societies to reaffirm basic values and patterns of collective allegiance.  When we attend games, we openly cheer for “our” team.  In so doing we give credence, intentionally or not, to the ways in which such events are organized.  As I have discussed elsewhere, sporting events are “identity ceremonies for societies with achievement-based value systems.”  That is, they are occasions for people collectively to acknowledge the legitimacy of competitive activity and, in the process, to honor those individuals and teams who distinguish themselves in that format. Sports showcase the role of physicality in settling human disputes, the importance of team loyalty, qualities of personal character pertinent to this type of success, commitment to narrowly focused activity (throwing a ball into a basket?), and adherence to the specialized morality of “sportsmanship.”  There are, after all, many ways to play physically and to experience one’s body.  Industrialized societies like our own make much of this particular version of physical striving.

We enjoy sports then because they provide models of people exploring the implications of socially approved goals and means.  Sports make success – and failure – spectacular.  Winners bask in collective approval (with commendations of prestige, wealth, and group support).  Losers, though only if they have played fairly and otherwise been “good sports,” are consoled.  What we see in sports then is people struggling to find their places in the social order.  Hierarchy – look at any league standing or compilation of individual statistics – is the product of individual effort. Or so it is said.

Of course, few of us play – or watch – sports to receive moral instruction.  Instead, we want fun, entertainment.  However, our experiences of fun surely are connected to the feelings of purposefulness and satisfaction that organized sport creates for us and acknowledges as a legitimate use of our time and energy.  

To give us these feelings – and to advance their own interests – communities, schools, governments, and businesses sponsor sports.  Most of us are willing to pay – with time, money, and effort – for something that seems created for our own enjoyment.  And usually we are grateful to the sponsors that provide these opportunities.

There is another theme.  We play and watch sports to build our relationships with other people and to build the personal identities that reflect those relationships.  Most of us enjoy time spent playing and watching games with others.  Much of that is mere sociality, being with others and feeling that camaraderie.  But sports also provides opportunities for status within those groups.  Who doesn’t want do well at one’s chosen sport?  Teasing, bets, and bragging rights are often by-products of the gathering.  Much the same can be said for “sports knowledge,” revealed by critical comments we share during games with other observers.  Playing and watching are skills, of their own sorts.  In contemporary societies, leisure status rivals occupational status as a basis of social comparison.  “I grant that job, my family connections, and my political and religious beliefs are of little interest to you; but watch me now as I hit this shot!”   

An Inside View.  Perhaps we play to fit in with others and, beyond that, to distinguish ourselves among them.  Perhaps we enjoy being admired – as a “winning” participant, commentator, or fan.  More certainly, we want to evaluate ourselves well in society’s terms.  More certainly yet, we fear the opposite estimation.

A different way to think about all this is to stay in more strictly psychological territory.  Sports somehow speak to many people; they resonate with their embodied spirit.  Regardless of group approval, individuals enjoy the prospect of challenge, of putting themselves on the line.  Curiously, for sports provides very limited behavior formats, each outing is somehow different; no two games are the same.  That curiosity about physical and psychological experience drives players forward.  Who does not want to feel themselves doing something differently and, ideally, better than they have done it before?

So sports is about the desire for accomplishment, the quest to take on physical challenges and, in the process, to confront the limitations of body and mind.  Because of that, sport fits well with the progress-oriented individualism of many advanced industrial societies.  Perhaps progress in sports will lead to progress in other realms – economic, medical, psychological, political, and social.  Putatively, many of the same principles apply.

As heartening as that viewpoint may be, I wish the reader to consider the opposite – but not inferior – approach here.  Sport is equally a going backwards, a form of personal reconsolidation or “regression.”

Much of the charm of sport stems from the fact that is something for both children and adults.  Indeed, physical play is commonly thought of as the special province of the young.  Most of the major spectator sports are games that children also play.  Even highly specialized activities like automobile and horseracing, sailing, and hunting have their childhood antecedents.  When adults play – or simply watch – these games they put themselves in touch with their own histories as persons.  Many of us have sports biographies that center on memories of special places and people, some of whom (perhaps parents, grandparents, and other relatives and friends) are now departed.  When we play or watch, we reanimate those links.  Our current play endeavors are merely the living edges of a vast cavalcade of occurrences.  Playing now, we find some comfort in being able to do things that were once such prominent features of our lives.       

Young people are buoyed, and rightly, by the prospect of becoming better and better at these activities. But at some point, maturity – and responsibilities associated with such – interrupts that progress.  Indeed, one portion of maturity is recognizing those limitations.  No matter.  Most of us try to find games we can still play with some measure of skill.  We re-imagine ourselves as coaches, supporters, commentators, and fans.  We keep alive the play tradition by supporting the rising generations.

Since play is often so innovative, irreverent, and future-seeking, it may seem odd that the major sports are quite traditional in their formats.  Bats, balls, players on a side, dimensions of the field, and so forth resist change.  Because of that, it is possible to see continuities between the players of the past and today.  Records are established – and broken.  Players build their own histories as accumulations of experiences and behaviors, all roughly equivalent.  A “day at the ball park” is not so different from the same event fifty years before.  Individuals – and communities – measure their lives in such terms.

There are other aspects to this quality of return, what I am calling regression.  Despite all the technical intricacies described by the commentators (ways to blast out of a sand trap in golf, to complete a triple Lutz in figure skating, to convert a spare in bowling, and so forth), sport is fundamentally a simple thing.  It can be made complicated (think of all the strategizing that occurs in a game of football or baseball), but at base it features people trying to complete certain physical acts.  Children can manufacture these behaviors, or at least the versions that are suitable to their growing bodies.

Much of the appeal of sport then is this relative simplicity.  Players are encouraged to focus entirely on the field of play.  Other worries and ambitions are set aside.  Games begin and end; players restart on equal terms.  The game – and the “season” – moves forward as a sequence of sharply bounded moments 

Ordinary existence, by contrast, is complicated:  “What will my friends and family think if I say or do that?”  “Should I invest this money in my retirement fund or use it in some other way?”  “Will this medication have harmful side-effects?” In other words, ordinary existence has lasting repercussions and complexities that are difficult to foresee.   Those ordinary times feature people bursting into our spaces to interrupt what we are doing.  Routine life features distraction, doubt, and disarray.

One of the great books on play, Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, develops just this theme.  Because the playground is often separate from ordinary realms, it allows people to focus explicitly on the matters before them.  To be sure, some of those activities – perhaps running around a track in short pants, bouncing a ball, or trying to ride ocean waves on a board – may seem trivial, even childlike.  But that very triviality allows other matters, especially qualities of personal capability and character, to come more clearly into view.

Huizinga called this quality of separation the “magic circle.”  We enjoy play – and, as one part of this, sport – because that activity frees us from consequence.  In play, we often do things that are, on the face of it, irrelevant or silly. In the process, we take ourselves seriously.  That is, we learn about our own abilities to create and respond to willingly accepted challenges.   Frequently enough, we do this in a light-hearted way; but usually we are very intent on accomplishing the task before us.

There are other dimensions to our regression into simpler territories and stages of life.  Arguably, sport features moral regression.  Once again, ordinary existence features moral complexity.  It is often difficult to know which course to follow or which persons – self, family, friends, workmates, or the many other members of one’s society – to respect through our actions.   

Sport restricts these considerations.  Playing fair means accepting the rules, however artificial and convoluted these may be.  Persons who try to circumvent these rules are “cheats.”  Those who declare them silly are “spoilsports.”  In that sense, games tend to feature what psychologists and philosophers call “moral realism.”  It is not the rules themselves that one may criticize (at least during the game); it is merely their enforcement or adjudication.

An important student of play, Jean Piaget, argued that children learn about rules through play.  When we play informally, we decide what the rules are, what rule-violation is, and what punishments apply to rule-breakers.  However, at the more organized levels of sport, many of these questions shift to administrators and game officials.  For their part, players seek to disguise their infractions – a little tug here, a bump there, a pretense of having been pushed or pulled.  For spectators, seeing what the referees “catch” may be part of the fun.  It is something to argue about.  More profoundly, it betrays a distinctive kind of morality.

Partisanship is one important aspect of life.  At times, it is valuable to recognize who is friend and foe, we and they.  Likewise, loyalty to group, or team, is a virtue most of us acknowledge.  However, too much of this is problematic.   Team rivalry, and its associated morality, inspires and excites.  “We” become desperate to beat “them.”  Nevertheless, who would say that unthinking loyalty to the warring side represents a particularly high stage of moral thinking?

In much the same way, sporting involvement cultivates only certain stages of personal development.  Familiar to many readers is the work of psychologist Erik Erikson, who argued that each stage of life possesses its own type of emotional challenge.  In the stages of late childhood and adolescence, newly independent people try to develop the skills necessary to succeed in the world (what Erikson termed the quest for “industry”) and then to find their place within social circles of peers (what he called the quest for “identity’).  Pointedly, sport centers on these very concerns. Players try to develop skills and to succeed through their application. They bind themselves to one another, find themselves positioned in team hierarchies, and experience the vicissitudes of praise and condemnation.

Once again, these themes – essentially building life-skills and establishing useful alliances – are fundamental human matters.  Personal advancement, and the techniques pertinent to this, count.  At least they count in technically enthused, status-conscious societies.

Still, those lessons are only one portion of what people need to know – and of what they need to do to support one another fully.  Progress of the partisan sort is only one sort of progress.

Sports rightly dramatize some of the skills pertinent to personal accomplishment.  They explore the possibilities of competition and the implications of allegiance.  They remind us of the enduring importance of physicality in our lives.  They celebrate what it means to be young.

Nevertheless, that model is inadequate to the broader challenges of modern societies or of life’s journey, which entails many other moral, cognitive, and emotional themes.  Let us indulge the childhood wisdom that sport recreates.  But the wisdom-traditions of the other, more ordinary, times and places of life must be honored as well.

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