Debunking Spectator Sports: Confessions of an Anti-Sports Fan

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Are you not entertained?

Richard Sahn

I’ve never gotten excited about or interested in a particular sports team, whether professional or amateur. I don’t care whether a particular team wins or loses and I go out of my way not to watch games on TV or listen to a radio broadcast.

Prior to this year’s Super Bowl game, I listened to people chant, on the phone or in person, “Go Patriots” or “Go Eagles.” Even a Catholic priest at the end of a mass I attended recently couldn’t leave the altar before letting the parishioners know he was a Patriots fan.

Spectator sports have always been a secular religion in most developed countries but with no promise of any form of salvation, afterlife, or reincarnation. The most you can really expect from your team is winning a bet on the game. But  spectator sports  is a distraction with negative consequences, ultimately, to society and the individual sports fan—such as having no understanding of the actions of political parties.

And because each season of the year has its athletic contests there is no letup. A fan is deluged all year round with games as well as incessant commentaries on athletes and the points they score or might score.  Athletic contests and players, even on the high school level, are  a major topic of conversation, especially among adult males  I view such conversations as not only boring but irrelevant to my own life, to what I  would call meaningful concerns.

In fact, I would argue spectator sports discussions have no lasting therapeutic value in dealing with the real “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Political philosopher Noam Chomsky recently said, probably somewhat sarcastically, that if as much mental energy was expended in solving the social and economic problems of the world as is expended in trying to explain why a given team wins or loses a game, much socially and politically induced suffering and death could be eliminated.

Eavesdrop on virtually any conversation, especially at World Series, Super Bowl, or NBA playoff times, and you’ll hear conversations that would make you believe you were in a think-tank rivaling the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Now, as a sociologist, I realize the important function of sports in society. That function, of course, is a distraction from life’s existential problems and dilemmas. Death, loss of loved ones, nuclear war, global warming are certainly among those problems. And, most assuredly, being a spectator sports fanatic is a far better alternative than being a drug addict or engaging in anti-social behavior.  I also admit spectator sports have a limited psycho-therapeutic effect on some people.

My quarrel is with the level of energy spent watching and then discussing sports events. Even expressing one’s preference for one team or another I find disturbing, mainly because I feel there are more worthwhile causes to champion. Agonizing, so it seems, over the prowess of individual players and their team’s chances of winning playoffs or championships is a waste of time and energy. Simply put, I cannot empathize in the slightest with the sports fan. In that respect I guess I’m a type of sociopath since sociopaths can’t empathize with other human beings in general.

Arguably, spectator sports also contribute to the “us” versus “them” perspective toward social life, the belief that life is not interesting or worthwhile unless “us” is always trying to  defeat “them,” whether “them” be a rival team or country–in other words, not “us.”

The great (former) coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi once proclaimed, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Could Lombardi’s philosophy be applied to our current president who is also an ardent sports fan?  Could Donald Trump’s insistence on America becoming “great again,” with all the dire consequences to minority groups and the underclass, not to mention the world in general, be the by-product of his obsessive interest in spectator sports? At one time our president wanted to be owner of an NFL team. What does that tell us?

Two psychological processes seem to account for the prevalence of the typical sports fan. These are vicarious identification and reification. Vicarious identification is thinking that one “IS” actually the team he or she is watching.  The team’s victory or defeat is his/her victory or defeat.  Being able to enjoy plays, movies, and novels entails the same process; for the moment, one is a character in a work of fiction. The ability of consciousness (mind, soul, brain, spirit, if you prefer) to immerse itself in a story or situation that is fictitious is, for sure, one of the great joys of life. From time to time I’ve watched certain films or videos multiple times and can still fool myself into thinking that I don’t really know the outcome.  Perhaps spectator sports allow male fans in particular to be the macho male, the alpha male they’re not in everyday life, without having to perform in any way. No need to resort to violent behavior if one vicariously identifies with a football team or professional wrestlers.

Reification is psychologically treating an abstract concept or mental construct as if it were real, as if it were empirical or tangible reality.  Semanticists will say “the word is not the thing” or “the map is not the territory.”  Nations, states, cities do not exist as realities (sui generis); they are only abstract concepts, in other words, words.  People exist, athletes exist, and games are played, but the sports fan wants his/her “team” to win because the name of the team itself is regarded as if it were a live person or group of people.

It doesn’t matter, usually, who the real life players are or even if there are any real life players. It’s the “team” itself—the word is the thing.  I once asked my students who were fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers whether they would still want the Steelers to defeat the Dallas Cowboys if the teams’ executives exchanged players and coaches. The Steelers fans said they would still support or root for the Steelers over the Cowboys. I tried to point out the error in their thinking, that there is no such reality as the “Steelers” or the “Cowboys,” that only players and their coaches exist. No, the Steelers fans would remain Steelers fans and want the team to win because they are “The Steelers.”

Existence precedes essence, say the existentialists.  Existence is what is tangibly real, for example, what could physically maim, hurt, kill. Essence refers to words, ideas, concepts. (For example, essence would be the “thoughts and prayers” for gun victims–what we hear so much these days from our politicians in the wake of shooting violence.) Scoring a touchdown is “existence.” The team that fans roots for is “essence,” in other words, nothing but an idea with no more substance than the number “5.” When one regards spectator sports existentially it becomes difficult to be a fan, although one may enjoy viewing brilliantly executed plays on the field or in the arena.

My argument here, then, is that the serious spectator sports fan is likely to be distracted from engaging in philosophical, political, aesthetic, critical thinking or reflection.  Now, I have no doubt that one could be a sports fan, even a fanatical sports fan, and be a social activist, an artist, a scholar, a reflective person capable of deep meditation.  I just see spectator sports as tending to obstruct or preclude intellectual and aesthetic development in the general population of a given country.

Professional and collegiate athletic events do benefit our economic system by creating all kinds of jobs and careers, and not just for the players. But spectator sports may also stand in the way of the fan being exposed to and contemplating the vital social and political issues of the times. It is reasonable to ask whether being a serious sports fan erodes participation in the democratic process. Why are most universities known for their teams and not for what their faculties teach? What’s the first thing an American thinks of when he or she thinks of “Ohio State” or “Notre Dame” or “Penn State”?  Is it higher learning?  Or football?

Richard Sahn teaches sociology at a college in Pennsylvania.

13 thoughts on “Debunking Spectator Sports: Confessions of an Anti-Sports Fan

  1. Sometime in 2004, my younger brother Jack, the high school history and English teacher (also a U.S. Army veteran and football coach), challenged me to write an anti-war poem — in the particular stanza format that he provided as a guide. He told me that several of his colleagues had asked him for counter-recruitment materials to help dissuade their students from joining the U.S. military just to get a job or a little future educational assistance, since their civilian employment prospects did not look too promising. I thought of private Jessica Lynch, the public-relations “hero” of Deputy Dubya’s Iraq Invasion, who said: “I joined the Army to get out of Palestine, West Virginia, where I couldn’t even get a job at Wal-Mart.” I reflected upon this comment as well as my own nearly six-years in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club (a.k.a., the United States Navy) and then this happened:

    Bread and Circuses
    (in the Gaelic Bardic verse style)

    Mired in heat and dust and sand
    Gallant band of brothers true
    Country’s service is their aim
    Death and maiming is their due

    In where angels fear to tread
    Foolish, dreaded leaders rush
    Bringing power’s fearsome groan
    Leaving only graveyard’s hush

    “By the pricking of my thumbs”
    This way comes the wicked pawn
    Drunk with drinking conquest’s draught
    Juggernaut goes crushing on

    Won with honest trifles’ lure
    Still so sure in dwindling light
    Now betrayed in consequence
    Of the senseless, needless fight

    Can this be the path they chose?
    How can those who serve inquire?
    Why has this rough beast come ’round,
    To be drowned and born in fire?

    Stillborn monster, undead thing!
    How we sing your praises high!
    Those whom we’ve made destitute
    Still salute and fight and die

    Hear the crowd’s roar! Feel the heat:
    Sizzling meat now roasting slow
    Do they die for reasons known?
    Or for only pomp and show?

    Who has wavered; who stands fast
    ‘Till the last good soul goes free?
    Who says “he” and who says “she”?
    Who but thee and who but me

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2004

    Given the graphic illustration that heads this article (from the movie “Gladiator”) I think that the verse holds up pretty well after fourteen years.

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    1. “Death and maiming is their due”
      This has been a necessary part of the exercise, because the government has needed “sacrificial lambs” to evidence the supposed sanctity of their evil deeds. Here it ties into the Christian religion, with the blood of the lamb, etc. Very Aztec-like too. Even the badly-wounded serve this need, with bed-side visits and medals.
      But the nature of warfare is changing. Whereas a hundred deaths a week were acceptable in the Vietnam era, they aren’t any more, and anyhow the government can have drone aircraft firing rockets to kill the innocents in other countries. Grieving parents won’t be able to say “well he went to a better place.” Might these changes take all the fun out of war? Maybe. Let’s hope so.

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  2. “My argument here, then, is that the serious spectator sports fan is likely to be distracted from engaging in philosophical, political, aesthetic, critical thinking or reflection. ”

    So a major goal of the government is to subsidize this distraction so that citizens have less inclination to think about how the government is usually acting against their best interests. Examples of the types of subsidies sports teams regularly enjoy include: tax-deductible ticket sales (including on luxury suites), reduction of taxes on revenue via direct tax credits and sweet-heart deals on new facilities.

    Most sports teams are actually quite profitable and do not actually require tax breaks to remain competitive. Nevertheless, professional sports teams are provided tax-exempt financing for stadiums. In the last 15 years, according to the Brookings Institute, sports teams built 36 stadiums with tax-exempt bonds, costing federal taxpayers almost $4 billion.

    Also consider the regimentation of sports, and the national anthem, and the jet fighter flyovers, and all the other pressures to avoid real-life issues and lose oneself in the splendor of it all, while wearing the team colors and being macho drinking lots of beer.

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  3. An excellent Web Site is Field of Schemes: http://www.fieldofschemes.com/

    I played Little League as boy and also the kids in my neighborhood played sandlot at the big school yard near my house. My Dad took me to my first Cubs game back in the late 1950’s when Ernie Banks was in his prime. The whole scene was awe inspiring, I had never seen so many people in one place. There was a solitude to watching the game, like a picnic in a big park. The underlying murmurs of the crowd, punctuated by cheers or boos. If I recall right the grandstand tickets were $1.50 a piece. I went to a few more Cubs games in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. It was decades before I finally went back to a professional game.

    It was shocking to me, when I went back in person to a game recently. The old peaceful solitude of baseball had been shattered by mega-trons, blasting music and canned cheers from the loud speakers – I should add very loud speakers.

    The team paraphernalia is all made in some Third World Country. The professional players have unions and are quick to invoke their rights if they have problems. The players would not demand that their paraphernalia be made in the USA by union labor. Point they can make millions endorsing tennis shoes, while the workers who made the shoes may make a few dollars an hour.

    The McMega-Media does not bat eye, or take in a breath when some coach is paid millions of dollars at some college.

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  4. When I hear mention of “professional” sports — especially in association with the American political or “military” analogue — I tend to picture televised “wrestling,” as in the following, from Wikipedia:

    The history of WWE dates back to the early 1950s when it was founded by Jess McMahon and Toots Mondt in 1952 as Capitol Wrestling Corporation (CWC). It underwent numerous name changes throughout the years, from World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) to World Wrestling Federation (WWF) to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in 2002.

    WWE is the largest professional wrestling company in the world. It has promoted some of the most successful wrestlers and storylines, and featured some of the most iconic and significant matches and moments in the history of the sport. WWE currently airs several high-profile programs such as Raw and SmackDown in more than 150 countries, hosts 12 pay-per-view events a year including WrestleMania, and holds approximately 320 live events a year throughout the world. In 2014, WWE launched the first ever 24-7 streaming network which would eventually showcase the entire WWE video library.

    I think that President Donald Trump watches this sort of thing “religiously” just to keep his eyes and ears keenly attuned to “the heartbeat of America.” For my part, I got up this morning thinking of the staged phoniness of American “culture” along with the nearly two-year attempt by the Democratic party to hang the “Kremlin puppet” albatross around President Trump’s slippery political neck. Since I have resumed thinking in verse of late, the thought of anything “Russian” puts me in mind of Alexander Pushkin, and his extended narrative poem, Eugene Onegin, a format in which I have not done all that much work since 2016 when I wrote A Pestilential Debate. So, free-associating WWE “sports” + Trump-and-You-Know-Her American politics + Russian verse formats, I came up with this:

    Tag-Team Twosome

    Two years later on, The Donald,
    now the White House resident,
    Connoisseur of “food” from Ronald,
    Golden Arches president,
    Watches TV, Tweets and twitters,
    Giving half the world the jitters,
    Fingers of his tiny hands
    (Stroking military glands)
    All too near The Big Red Button.
    “Fire and Fury,” piss-poor prose,
    Kim Jong-un a “bloody nose.”
    Swills his Diet Coke, a glutton.
    Tax cuts for the One Percent.
    Working poor can’t pay the rent.

    Meanwhile, You-Know-Her, defeated
    By a TV game-show host
    Can’t accept she wasn’t cheated.
    Voters, hating her the most,
    Given two repulsive “choices”
    (Neither who will heed their voices)
    Chose the “newer,” “fresher” fraud.
    Democrats heard words from GAWD
    (Passed down through the corporations,
    Tell Aviv and Wall Street, too):
    “Ask the oligarchs their view.
    Then solicit bribes (‘donations’).
    Last: blame Vladimir for Don.
    Stick to that and don’t move on.”

    Take a poll. See if it’s raining.
    Just don’t go outside. It’s wet.
    Then back to non-stop camaigning.
    Them or Them is what you get.
    “Them” means Genghis Khan, gorilla,
    Or, the also-Right Atilla:
    Hen, not Hun, the Scourge of Good.
    Nests in Money’s neighborhood.
    Lays eggs for the Khan’s consumption.
    Clucks and glares to look real tough.
    Never quite right-wing enough.
    Lacking any grit or gumption,
    “Fights” to lose. The Right will win.
    Tag-Team Twosome: Out or In.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2018

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    1. As a kid, I watched professional wrestling with my older brothers in the 1970s. It was hilarious. Everyone knew it was fake; everyone knew it was done for fun and laughs. Memorable wrestlers included Chief Jay Strongbow (he’d do a war dance to get fired up), Haystack Calhoun, Gorilla Monsoon, George the Animal Steel, and similar characters.

      Then wrestling hit the bigtime and started taking itself too seriously. I lost interest. The charm was gone. It became more violent. More insulting. Meaner. Perfect for Trump.

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      1. I had Don Arnold AKA (the original) “Dr. Death” as a neighbor not too long ago, before he got Alzheimer’s and passed. Back in the Gorgeous George days, he’d arrive in the ring with his black bag ready for the main act. Later he got a PhD degree in Human Behavior, and taught in college. He would amaze us with his expert analysis of people we knew — right on the money. We do miss Dr. Death.

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      2. Back in the first half of the 1960s, our high-school wrestling team held a fund-rasing event where the kids — the “real” wrestlers — did a spoof of phoney TV “wrestlers” in their various popular incarnations. Everyone had a good laugh. One of my classmates on that wrestling team, Kenny Buys, has his name engraved on a black marble wall in our nation’s capitol. He didn’t make it past 1968. I told my own two sons — just as I would tell any young student today — “It would surprise you to learn just how quickly you can go from sitting in a high school classroom to cringing in a foxhole on the other side of the world.”

        In many ways, sporting events, cock-fights, bear-baiting, witch drowning, public hangings (and other forms of execution), gladiator games, etc., have offered the general populace — historically called the “rabble” or “mob” by the upper classes — a vicarious substitute for revolutionary revenge directed upwards at the ruling classes who occasionally find themselves losing their heads at the guillotine or hanging from a lamp post in the Financial District (i.e., money-changing temples).

        One can usually get a sense of societal drift by observing the degree of frenetic violence involved in the “games” of choice. The more desperate the “games” (which now feature never-ending “elections”) the more desperate the coming revenge. Just saying …

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  5. Penn State: where the electron microscope was invented, but no-one thinks of anything other than football when they hear the name. As someone who comes from an entire family of people who don’t see the appeal of spectator sports (if I like a sport I will play it but seldom watch), I can still see the tendrils of spectator sport culture spreading like a disease into war and politics at an exponentially increasing rate. If the Persian Gulf War, the first televised war, got good ratings, what does that tell you? My mother suggests one way to solve the debt crisis is to organise the military the same way as professional sports and have people bet on which division will kill the most [insert nationality here] in the allotted time. Now, you can point out how childish “The Hunger Games” is all you want, but I think we may start to see something very similar in the near future – people paying to watch staged wars. One could argue all the wars the U.S. has been involved in since 1950 have been staged, but that there were no paying spectators until 1991. What I meant by staged wars was “wars that people KNOW are fake.” Now, were the military-industrial-congressional complex out of the picture, you might have a situation like Thunderdome from “Mad Max” instead: two quarrelling politicians enter, one leaves. We could even have trial by combat for despots at the UN: “you stand accused of crimes against humanity, now choose your champion.” I’ve heard people make the argument “say what you will about the M-I-C complex, but they at least keep us civilised.” Oh, it is more civilised to send ten thousand brainwashed soldiers to their deaths rather than force politicians to get their hands dirty, is it? It’s cheaper to televise SSD (Senate Sabre Duels) that entire wars, and people will watch both. Meanwhile, I’ll be laughing at everyone, checking off a whole list of books and films that have correctly predicted the future.

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  6. An excellent essay.

    I think of sports mania as an emotional sandbox. One can get all worked up, then cool down and in the end it makes no difference and nobody is hurt (except football players). The male bonding is undeniable. It is an instant ice-breaker for total strangers and allows identity on the cheap with no responsibility or cost (I don’t mean money), while giving an elating sense of belonging and vicarious power through victory, all without effort. All fans know that there is no real difference across a stadium for all the roars and rants, in large part that is because anyone can see that “they” look just like “us”. For all the denunciation of other teams/fans, all know it is wholly made up. Injuring or killing another because of a different team affiliation is all but unknown even in a country where there are killings over family arguments or sports shoes, proving that people are able to draw a firm line over which they will not cross: let the teams do the fighting.

    My earliest memories are of visiting homes where sports were on the tube (we didn’t have a TV). As a college student a thousand miles from home in Chicago, tuning in a night game on WGN was some comfort, but my father had no interest at all in sports and neither did I. Interestingly, my son is as rabid a fan across all sports as one could hope to find. Go figure.

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