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.