Monday, April 20, 2009

Why Do I Follow Sports?

I had planned for one of the first posts to be about why I finds sports so arresting. I had some outlined ideas I was going to expound on, but then Oil Can Samson pointed me to the Run of Play’s series of posts on Why Do We Follow Sports? In a neat series, he knocks out most of what I had to say. Concisely, sport is at once a form of modern tribalism that allows us to experience the most dangerous parts of ourselves, an avenue of aesthetic beauty and a bottomless well of compelling narrative. He’s dead on, and easily stole most of my thunder. He did, however, miss, or at least not emphasize, what drives my interest the most.

First, conflating the tribalism of team fandom and the (sometimes barely) sublimated violence of sport seems an imperfect mesh. I don’t mean to discount sublimated violence, but I think the tribalism here is more complicated than just a vector to societally-condoned strife. It’s so true as to be meaningless that every aspect of modern life is complex. Nothing at my core is exactly shared. My politics are not your politics, my space is not your space, what I hold close about my community may share with what my neighbor does, but it is never the same, and is often wildly different. I love America, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to high-five every dude sporting an American flag. Uniquely, sports allegiance cuts through the complexity that surrounds us. Because sports is so arbitrary, because my team winning has no larger ramifications or repercussions in other spheres1 I don’t have to temper my enthusiasm with an eye to interconnectivity and unintended consequences. To perhaps oversimplify, if we’re all living in variously comfortable versions of the Wire, we’re all still rooting for the Orioles/Ravens/Wizards. If the guy next to you at the bar is rooting for your team, he’s fine by you. You may not want to talk to him, you might think he’s an idiot because he doesn’t like your favorite player enough, but you’re both pulling for the same laundry, and in the heat of the game, that’s most of what matters. I can’t begin to imagine a situation outside a sports arena where I could be a willing participant in a vocal mob of 40,000 people, but being able to join into a group like that validates parts of our social being that don’t otherwise see the light of day.
1: Yes, everything has economic ramifications. Sports, ultimately, is small enough and dedicated only to its own propagation enough that I’m willing to disregard this.

Second, when I was a kid, it drove me crazy that the good guys always won. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m far too much of a sap to be rooting for the bad guy, but the fact that the what of the story was decided undermined my appreciation of the how. If just once a villain had foregone the speech or obvious Achilles’ Heel and steamrolled a plucky underdog of a hero, it would have validated every other happy ending for me.2 No matter how intricate the climax and clever the denouement, foregone conclusions leave me cold.
2: I think this is why I don’t totally understand bandwagon fandom. If you’re rooting for the juggernaut qua juggernaut, you’ve narrowed your outcomes to the expected or the disappointing. I can’t help but feel that that position squeezes out most of the wonder.

Nothing is ever certain in sports. (Yes, a quarterback killing the last minute of a game by taking his knee successively or a 20 point NBA lead with 1:15 left are sure things, but you never know that you’ll end up there at the beginning. Whereas you know in the Shire that somehow, some way Mordor is going to lose.3) Any narrative told about a game is either pure conjecture or written over events retroactively. All of the import of sports hangs on this fact.
3: As noted in Ball Four (I think), one of the most beautiful things about baseball is that you can't run out the clock. Even if you're up 15 runs, the other team gets its twenty-seven outs. A lead is never entirely safe until the game is over.

Brian Phillips gets at what I mean most directly in Part Four of his posts, but where he focuses on hope, on wishing the universe will bend to your will, I’m not sure it’s that purely teleological. He seems to be approaching some sort of Kierkegaardian existential truth, where sports use the world as a lens to reveal our hearts to us. I’m hooked not by whether the final shot goes in, or even any say I don’t have in it, but by the fact that it could go in, and it could rim out.

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