Friday, August 26, 2011

War Minus the Shooting

If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score? Vince Lombardi

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting. George Orwell

Competitive team sport tends to stimulate certain behaviours, both on and off the field, rink, or court, that extend beyond the parameters of the purpose and the written and unwritten rules of the game. The worst of these behaviours—brutal violence and wanton destruction of property—lead one to wonder about the nature and the value of competition and about the evolution (or lack thereof) of human consciousness.

One only has to look to events of the recent past in professional and amateur sport to glean examples of the baser instincts overcoming the more refined and rational aspects of our nature.

  • In March of this year a San Francisco Giants fan was brutally beaten in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles during a baseball game. Two Dodger fans were charged with the assault
  • In June riots erupted in Vancouver following the defeat of the local team by the Boston Bruins in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final series. Youths roamed the streets of the city for hours, burning police cars, smashing windows, and looting stores
  • On August 18 a “friendly” basketball game in Beijing between the Hoyas of Washington’s Georgetown University and a professional Chinese team ended in a brawl when one of the Chinese players pushed a Hoyas player to the floor. Fans threw chairs and full water bottles at the Georgetown team members as they hurriedly exited the stadium
  • On August 20, two people were shot at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park following a professional football game

The majority of sports fans do not come close to this level of intensity in their support of this team or that team. Yet the questions I ask myself as I read of these incidents and as I reflect on my own reactions to the rise and fall of the fortunes of my favourite teams are these: Is there something essential missing in the life of a sports fan that causes him to project his expectations onto an athletic organization? Is the satisfaction I feel when my team wins in fact an affirmation to my ego, telling me that somehow I am better than everyone who supports the loser? Does society allow us to act out our disappointment with the performance of “our team” in a way that it does not allow us to do for other disappointments in our lives—job or relationship disappointments, for example?

Consider the fans of the San Francisco Giants, 2010 World Series champions. An article in the August 22 edition of The New York Times carried the following headline: “With the World Series Champs in a Slump, a City Suffers.” The Giants, in second place in baseball’s National League West (and still with a strong chance of competing in the playoffs), have not played well in August, and as a result the euphoria over last year’s surprising championship is quickly waning. The team’s current slump “has left its fans—and much of the Giants-crazy region—in a funk.”

The article describes the situation in the home of one devoted Giants fan. The fan’s wife says “she can gauge the mood of her husband…by the way the team plays. ‘He’ll be watching the Giants in his man cave and I’ll come in and I’ll look at the score’, she said. ‘And then I’ll sort of run away.’”

I recognize a version of this behaviour in myself. For example, I rarely watch on TV full games of the teams that I like because I find the experience too nerve-racking. I yell and curse at my team for their “stupid mistakes” or their “lousy play.” While this behaviour provides a source of amusement to other members of my household, I have to admit to myself that it is not the behaviour of a well-balanced, fully aware individual. Yet I do not behave this way when things do not work out to my satisfaction in other areas of my life (except perhaps when I am cooking).

And why is it that in other arenas of competition we do not see examples of extreme “fanism” resulting in incidents of violence or destruction of property? I have never heard of a brutal assault at the world figure skating championships (well, there was the 1991 Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident, but I’m pretty sure that was an anomaly) or of burned-out police cars and looted department stores following the Van Cliburn piano competition.

Curling is a competitive team sport, but as far as I know no one has ended up in the hospital as a result of a dispute between curlers or curling fans. One might argue that this is because curling is not a contact sport like football or soccer or even basketball. But baseball is not a contact sport either, yet the incident at Dodger Stadium mentioned above and at least one or two bench-clearing brawls per season show that the sport is no less immune to violence than more physical contests like hockey.

I have not seen psychological or socio-economic profiles of any of the actors involved in the above-mentioned incidents. Even if I had, I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, so I really wouldn’t know what to make of such profiles. Many will say that being a sports fan allows us to harmlessly vent our frustration with other aspects of our lives. Others will claim that watching sports and everything that goes with that pastime are nothing more than innocent fun. They may have a point.

Yet I do feel a sense of disquiet about how we allow our emotions to be manipulated by organized sport. This permitted manipulation says as much about us and our level of consciousness as it does about the big business of sport. If we sat back and non-judgmentally observed our reactions to the wins and losses of our teams (or to the performance of our children at the rink or on the field), we might in fact learn a great deal about ourselves. What do these reactions tell us about how happy—or more important, how unhappy—we are? What do they tell us about how we function in other areas of our lives? Perhaps they are pointing to issues that we need to deal with.

Competition pervades our everyday lives. It is present in the I’m right/you’re wrong scenarios that constantly play themselves out between spouses, partners, and friends, in the urge to get ahead of all the cars on the road in front of us, in the need to impress others with our grades, our salary, our beautiful significant other. That the thrill of winning or succeeding in all of these competitions is temporary and often comes at a cost should tell us something about the nature of competition and of our apparent need to win.

Is there something wrong with organized competitive team sport? I am not sure. But I do wonder if we’d be able to sit down at a baseball game or a football game simply for the pleasure of watching a group of highly trained athletes perform the magic of executing a play that no ordinary human could pull off, for the thrill of seeing a beautifully choreographed double play or a successful thirty-yard pass and run, regardless of which team produces the goods.

Or maybe I’m just an old spoilsport.


Creative Commons: Some rights reserved

Creative Commons: Some rights reserved

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