Go us!

I’ll apologize in advance, this may come off more like a rant than a thought-provoking piece, but it’s been stewing in my little brain for a while now and I’ve never seen anyone address it, so I shall leap valiantly into the breach. But sports are really damn stupid.

Mind you, I’m not referring to a friendly game of tennis, or really, anything where people get some exercise and aren’t driven by some goal to be superior. I’m talking about the multi-billion dollar industry where couch potatoes shout meaningless slogans at ridiculously overpaid athletes and obsess over what corporate-owned logo can lay claim to a title for a few months. Seriously, can somebody explain this to me?

Don’t try telling me it’s entertainment. They don’t hire color commentators to drone on endlessly about personal bests and garbage trivia because the viewers are wrapped up in the action. Though I will admit it can be fun to watch Dave Madden scribbling away madly with his magic onscreen pen, but that’s mostly because I’ve never seen any child play with any toy as fervently as he does. I keep waiting for little monster doodles to spring up and eat players he doesn’t like…

Just think about this for a second (not Madden, I mean sports in general.) What is the purpose to it all? What does it provide to us? Why do human beings find this so compelling?

Let’s face it, we have some aggressive, tribalistic tendencies – this is almost certainly an artifact of survival traits we needed a few centuries ago. Then, we had strong ties to our village or nomadic tribe, partially as protection against marauding neighbors – and, let’s be honest, also to provide a strong marauding force itself – and partially to reap the benefits of cooperative hunting, farming, and food storage. There were obvious benefits to this. Our species developed it (however far back along the way) because it worked far better than not having it, and thus outcompeted those who lacked it. Then, it was a good thing, and kept the tribes cohesive, kept the mutual protection and benefit thing happening. Now, though we no longer need it, but still have this drive, this “us against them” concept (which fits tightly with the dichotomous thinking trait that I wrote about a while back.)

Sports rivalry is a way of expressing that. Lacking a specific way of applying to the protection and advancement of a home village, which provided mutual benefit, this drive grounds itself in other areas, often getting referred to as “male-bonding” (not that this applies in all situations) but mostly having to do with competition and involving no small amount of emotional expression. This vague feeling that we should be engaging in certain behavior then gets justified within whatever method we choose to express it.

I have lived in several different places over the years, and by dint of expanding some arbitrary demarcation, I could say my “home team” was any of a dozen or more choices – despite the fact that I have participated in nothing even remotely related to any of them. Like virtually all sports fans, I know absolutely no one connected in any way with the games. I was not born in any city that is displayed within a team name. I have not contributed to their welfare, their training, their equipment or facilities. At best, I have at some particular point in time been in some stadium somewhere adding one voice to the cacophony creating a hearing hazard (no, I actually haven’t, but I’m playing the part of a sports fan for a moment, before I rag on them again.) At times I will shout at my TV, or stick a cheap plastic flag onto my vehicle. There’s a persistent rumor that Napoleon failed at Waterloo because the English armada had giant foam hands to wave defiantly. That kind of thing can turn the most stalwart heart, let me tell you.

I did, at one point in time, internally argue that sports were a safe outlet for the aggressive competitiveness we have built into us, especially males. Better to hash it out on a playing field than a battlefield, right? But now I think this is a flawed way of looking at it. First off, it can hardly be said that wars, violence, or conflict tapered off in any way once organized sports became popular. People certainly aren’t ready to accept the idea of being on the losing side, which is why awarded titles last only a season. For a fun exercise, imagine changing the rules so that one team wins for life. Wouldn’t the reaction to that be a great thing to watch? More entertaining that the games themselves, I’ll wager (five to one odds, place your bets.) Even so, is sublimating this aggression really working? Sure, we have soccer riots, but that’s nothing compared to the, um… weren’t there just standard riots on the streets every week or so before sports?

Actually, looking at the effect, it would seem that allowing and encouraging a response to innate tribalism is far worse than recognizing it and downplaying it. Encouraging it only legitimizes it. No one seems to think that they’re being primitive (or at least, that this is a bad thing) when engaging in sports rivalry. You’ll hear lots of excuses for it, lots of justifications, but do they stand up at all? How often do you wonder about the idea of paying someone else to physically ruin their body – or to try and ruin someone else’s? How useful is it to have a significant percentage of the country contribute income towards a completely vapid pursuit? How come the sports figures in colleges receive so much recognition while the PhDs generally struggle for decades for adequate grant money? You know, I think it was a major leap forward when Crick and Watson opened the door for so much medical and biological advancement – I couldn’t care less what Namath and Jordan did. Am I a mutant?

And if you aren’t sure who Crick and Watson are, but know Namath and Jordan, there’s a serious problem here. Can anyone argue against education? Is there a downside to it? But the salaries of educators is pretty pathetic, and school budgets have been slashed with the recent economic hand-wringing. Sports figures, however, aren’t struggling. It should make you wonder…

Here’s another aspect of that tribal/home team/cooperative society concept. Way back when, it worked to protect our food or even provide it, and to protect the other members of our tribe/village. But now, there’s no real benefit, is there? The winning team does not bring back the food, or prevent the food we have from disappearing. Sports, as a replacement for this drive, is like chewing gum: they don’t really accomplish anything except acting as a pacifier. At best, we can say some of the exorbitant amounts of money that sink into it comes back into the economy, especially if you sell steroids, expensive sports cars, and big ugly rings. Reagan would be proud of that trickle, I’m sure. Overall, however, it’s simply giving select individuals (players and owners) vast sums of money to jump and run and throw, or even just to supervise jumping and running and throwing.

I would probably be cool with the idea of two countries settling their differences on a playing field instead of in combat. It tends to be a lot less costly in every way. Then, maybe, displaying a little Calvin mourning over a dead number 3 on your pickup truck would have more meaningful social commentary. But again, there’s the whole behavior of the fans to consider. They can’t handle questionable calls from referees – they sure as shit can’t handle losing some economic advantage with grace. It’s the aggressive competition that’s the issue, not whether there is an adequate way of expressing it. In fact, fervent nationalism is a way of expressing it. There’s obviously a problem with believing that “My country is Number One!” is better than, “Maybe there’s some room for improvement.”

Innate drives do not mean they are useful, or unavoidable. Our social and economic structure, the idea of worldwide communication and travel, the ability to kill large numbers of people easily, came about very abruptly in evolutionary terms, within a handful of generations. There has not actually been time to breed out tribalism, even though it has little use anymore, and obvious disadvantages. We’re not trapped by this, however. Our sex drive has much the same provenance, and is widely controlled – our rational minds can easily override the instinctual or emotional, provided we recognize it and make the effort. Realize that just a couple of hundred years ago ritualized murder, in the form of dueling, was actually legal and supported by society, slavery even more recently. The fact that these are abhorrent to us now is great evidence for the power of rational thought.

The message needs to be clear, too. Competition does indeed have many benefits, to both the individual and the culture – as long as it’s competition with a positive result, and not merely for self-indulgence. Sports are a great way to maintain physical fitness, when practiced regularly – but not if you’re paying someone else to do it. Personal bests are great motivators – but only if they’re for something useful.

How long are televised sports events? Two hours? Three? How much does it cost to get into a game? Wait, how much?! Damn. Do you have that satellite dish primarily for sports? And that’s what per year?

Get up. Go outside. Do something, learn something, teach something. Don’t think of “goal” in terms of a little object going through some defined point in space. Think of it in terms of personal improvement. Then go out and score.

Have fun!