Friday, February 19, 2010

Thoughts on Sports, Part 2

I've already spoken about sports as a form of regional/family patriotism. But sports also fill a few further cultural niches. One of its more fundamental roles is as a communal art form. Sports are communal in the sense that they bring a group of people together for one purpose (in this case, the athletes are brought together to play a game). And sports are also an art form in the sense that each game is the creation of something new, the possibility of working together to make something (a certain play or the storyline of a particular game) that has never existed before. In our individualized, de-contextualized society, those are both very good things. It's worth asking, then, whether by professionalizing sports and becoming viewers rather than participants, we're actually losing the most valuable part of sport. Sports were invented to be played, and only secondarily to be watched. It would probably do the adults of this country good if more of us joined rec leagues and started learning all the lessons that we tell our kids they're learning on their school teams. I begin with this point because it's worth remembering that the professionalization of sports is something of an aberration of its true nature, and if we're really to judge the value of sports fairly, we need to play them.

For better or worse, however, most sports have become professionalized, and, thanks to TV, an object for mass consumerism. So the next niche that sports fill is that of entertainment. Professional sports are a show, put on for our pleasure (and our money). So while we might care deeply about the teams participating in a certain game, it's always worthwhile to remember that at a certain level, it is just that--a game--and it doesn't really affect any of the deepest levels of our lives. I enjoy watching sports a great deal--it's a fun way to unwind, to be caught up in the narrative of a competition--but, truth be told, when I was doing my mission work in Africa, without any TV, I didn't miss watching sports at all. In fact, that was the season of my life when I enjoyed sports the most--not watching it or tracking stats online, but playing soccer with the village kids.

Another niche, and a somewhat subtler one, is the cultural niche of heroic legend. We Americans have a patriotic set of heroic legends (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Davy Crockett, and so on), but none of those actually hold much sway over our daily lives. But sports provides a whole mythology for us, easily accessible and ongoing, something that we can believe in, feel a part of, and recount to our children. A mythology is really a cultural necessity--it develops on its own, because humans need something to believe in--and in our ahistorical society, which cares little about forefathers or saints, professional athletes and sports franchises have stepped in to fill that void. What do I mean by a mythology? I mean a set of legends, of heroes, of the great tales of years gone by, that are shared and relished and incorporated into our daily lives. And professional sports, for all its competitive flair and the relative permanency of its teams, fits the bill exactly. I'm able to cheer for the same teams that gave my father and my grandfather great stories and memories in their day. The tremendous victory of the 2004 Red Sox, coming back against their old rivals the Yankees in an unrivaled and near-impossible way, and then going on to win the World Series for the first time in 80-plus years--that is the stuff of legends. Though I hadn't personally experienced much of Red Sox history, I knew the legends: Babe Ruth's trade to the Yankees that ushered in a century of dominance for our foes, the great Red Sox players of years past who set records but never stood as champions, the near misses and heartbreaking losses (Bill Buckner...). None of those things did I actually witness. But they were part of me, part of the legend I had bought into, and so they made the victory of my 2004 Red Sox all the more astounding. We are beings who desperately want to believe in one great story, and our attachment to sports is a reflection of that. For some people, unfortunately, the great sports-stories actually usurp the place that the truly great story of history should hold--the mission of God in the world--but for most Christians, adherence to the legends of sport is simply a reflection of that same God-given hunger for one great story. It drives us to believe in the possibility of redemption, to hope that, despite all the woes and heartache along the way, our story will one day end in unbelievable triumph. Sport as a mythology is a reflection of our natural, human yearning for the God of salvation-history.

This brings us to the final niche I want to explore: sport as an incarnation of cultural values. This is seen in a number of ways. First and foremost is the fact that almost everyone knows that there is an unspoken moral code associated with sports. It doesn't win games or earn points, but everyone honors it--"good sportsmanship." Despite the fact that we know that professional athletes are often self-centered, greedy showoffs, we still expect them to be respectful to each other and to the officials, to be relatively honest (i.e., no outright cheating), and to be ambassadors for the moral virtues of our culture. Professional leagues go out of their way to present their athletes as goodwill ambassadors for all kinds of charitable programs. And it's interesting to note the reactions from fans when sports heroes break this moral code: though it has no effect on the outcome of the game whatsoever, players are called to task for not shaking hands with opponents after a loss, for being angry during press conferences, or for having moral failings in their own private lives. But why? If sport is simply entertainment, we really shouldn't care about any of those things. But we do care, because we still believe that morality and courtesy are important, and we expect sports, as an icon of our culture, to reflect that belief. The truth is that every game reflects something about the culture that produces and plays it. Sometimes it reflects good things, sometimes bad. While "good sportsmanship" is a positive reflection on our culture, the cult of sports also reveals our unnatural and distorted cultural obsession with the body, with health, and with youth.

Consider three iconic sports, two that stand as major American games, and one that is the world's game--American football, baseball, and soccer. Football is overwhelmingly popular here in the US, but its appeal has never spread much beyond our borders. One of the reasons, I think, is that it is a game cultivated in America, and so it is a reflection of certain cultural values that the rest of the world doesn't share. For instance, it reflects the American devotion to careful planning--holding "business meetings" before each play, as it were--followed by quick, active strikes. It also reflects an attraction to physical power (and maybe violence) that other cultures might not share. It borrows heavily from the imagery of war: blitzes, sacks, and so on, as well as the whole process of playing the game as a conquest of winning territory from your opponent. Football also plays into our exaltation of the cult of the leader, since it highlights certain roles (quarterback, coach, runningback) as particularly important. We are a culture that focuses inordinately on leaders (and, even in the culture of the American church, "leadership" has somehow become an idea of enormous consequence and study despite the fact that Scripture and church history would have us study and focus on "followership" over and above leadership any day). Football, along with basketball and a few other sports, also reflects our culture's slavery to the clock. We are a time-drenched society (a far cry from the more relaxed tradtional cultures of Africa, where time is not metered off into tiny portions in which to be productive, but rather enjoyed in long, patient pauses with friends), and the tyranny of the clock in football reflects this. A great deal of the strategy of the game comes down to "clock management," which is both interesting and unusual. Other sports, like soccer, also use clocks, but in a looser way, and not with the sort of neurotic control that we football-fans employ.

Now to baseball. A very different game from football, but it also tells us something about American culture. More than any other sport, baseball feeds our love of numbers. It reduces so nicely to statistics--any kind of statistic you can possibly imagine. Players are rated almost entirely on their performance statistics, and only once in a while do you hear other values (like camaraderie, leadership, or a personal gift for encouragement) mentioned, and then only as "intangibles." But performance is measurable, and so we measure it all. We have statistics for how well right-handed pitchers throw against left-handed batters, for which corners of the strike zone a batter hits best in, for how many feet and inches a home run travels. In fact, if you've watched baseball games on TV, you've no doubt noticed that commentators will even bring in completely irrelevant statistical data, just to have some numbers to talk about (one of the most common occurrences of this type is when commentators note statistical performance streaks that run back years in a particular team's history--the only problem being that the players on the team when that statistic began were completely different from the team's current players, so the performance of the "team" over that period is relatively meaningless). We worship numbers, and baseball is our pantheon. Second, it also reinforces our individualism. While other sports must be played as teams, baseball is highly individualistic. You still need a team, but it's always really one man versus one man--pitcher vs. batter. The catcher and the defense also come into it, obviously, but it's mostly about the individual performances of those two. And when the ball is hit out into the field, it only affects the player that it rolls to and the player defending the base that the hitter runs to. The poor left fielder might have nothing to do for an entire inning, because it's all based on individual performances. (Contrast that to soccer or basketball, which are far more fluid and team-oriented in the sense that everyone needs to be doing their job at each particular moment).

And now soccer--the game that the world is fanatical about, but which Americans don't particularly care for. I would suggest that there are some cultural values at play here. But, considering that Americans are again the ones singled out by this sport (this time on the unappreciative end), I think it says something about us. Soccer requires a certain patience, waiting for the long buildup to a few rare and glorious moments (goals). It may be that we don't enjoy watching soccer (though many of us enjoy playing it) because of a lack of patience. There's also that disappointing business of the possibility of ending in a tie. We Americans like clear results--a winner, a loser--but having two competitors end a contest on equal terms just doesn't sit well with us. We've never been a people comfortable with ambiguities (even in circumstances when ambiguities are better reflections of reality). A third example of cultural values might reflect more happily on Americans: watching international soccer hasn't really caught on in the US, partly, I think, because the sport sometimes ends up encouraging the practice of bending ethics in order to gain an advantage. Professional soccer players often take dramatic dives and dish out hard fouls (and sometimes commit handball fouls) and then feign a great show of innocence, which comes across (at least to this American--further, an American who enjoys soccer) as a little distasteful and against our hallowed value of "good sportsmanship."

There are more connections that could be explored for all these sports, to be sure. I point these out just to elucidate the fact that sports paint a pretty vivid picture of the things we value in our culture. And, given the popularity and near-ubiquity of sports in American culture, it's worth being aware of those tendencies, so that we can guard ourselves against their excesses.

After looking at the "cultural niches" that sports fill, I think it's safe to say that, from a position of moral judgment over professional sports, we can admit that it's a mixed bag. Sports fill some very important functions in our society, and they have the potential to reflect and reinforce some of our best tendencies as well as some of our weaknesses. In my next section, to be posted in a few days, we'll look at answering some of the common objections from moralistic critics of professional sports.