People who are not sports fans often wonder about the attraction of sports, an attraction which is often taken to fanatical levels. There seems to be something about sports teams which creates a passion in people, and a desire to “win.” This passion seems to be universal, or at least not restricted to particularly competitive cultures.
I think sports are so popular and generate such passion in people because they restimulate our need for finality. We prefer stories where the “good guys” win and where there is a clear resolution (the guilty get punished or killed, the “good guys” are rewarded, revenge is taken, and so on). Our mythology (both religious and political) is full of such stories. They satisfy something deeply human: our desire for some absolute truth, some stable datum with which to shore up our limited knowledge and perceptive abilities. We are repulsed by uncertainty and ambiguity.
When we watch a sports game, we get all of those pleasurable signals: we get a measurable objective, we get a clear resolution (a team wins, the other loses), and we get a chance of “winning” (by identifying ourselves with one of the teams). Every game, every season, is a story, with “good guys” (one’s team) and “bad guys” (the other teams). This story can be told in two main ways, in a narrative form and in a statistical form, both of which are used for different purposes. Sports provides a simple-minded sort of clarity that real life simply does not have. This is also shown in the way that sports fans hate draws. Draws are depressing for them because they get in the way of a clear resolution (no one “wins” the story of the game).
Some people have tried to use sports as a template for human behavior in society at large. But there are some problems with this. For one, real life does not, and cannot, have the level of clarity necessary for sports. Life is far too complicated for that, and causality as we understand it is not about “winners” and “losers.” There is no God or grand design pitting us against each other. Furthermore, sports requires an extreme us v them mentality (“our team” against “the other teams”), a mentality which is extremely destructive in real life, and which is most closely associated with war.
War shares most of the characteristics of sports, to the point where it’s been theorized that sports started as a sublimated form of war. War also has measurable objectives, clear winners and losers, and a way to identify with winners (through nationality). They also both share a whole realm of statistics, which makes them both domains available for obsession, re-creation, and so on. All of this is fed to us through the media (in history shows and sports shows), which makes people concentrate not on the (im)moral aspect of these institutions but on their technical details and minutiae. They provide a distraction, a form of entertainment, for many people.
I think role-playing games, mostly the kind that are played live with other people, also feed the need for finality. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they were adopted by “nerds,” who are usually the opposite of “jocks,” those who play or are into sports. Role-playing games nowadays are more nuanced and complex, but, back in the days of Dungeon and Dragons, used to center around combat, and had that same clarity: there were clear winners and losers to every battle, every player had a chance to “win” both individual battles and larger objectives, they pit clear “good guys” against clear “bad guys,” and they also have a lot of statistical details and minutiae.
There is one huge difference between role-playing games, and sports and war: role-playing games do not involve hating other real humans, only fantasy monsters and villains. Therefore people involved in role-playing games do not poison their minds with needless hostility. The struggle is entirely fictional. In sports and war, however, the competition pits real people against each other. Therefore a dehumanization process must take place. In both cases, players have no particular reason to hate the opposing team, therefore they must be made to hate artificially.
[C]onsider a comment by NBA coach Pat Riley, of the Miami Heat. Bemoaning an unusually long break between his team’s playoff games, Riley said, “Several days between games allows a player to become a person. During the playoffs, you don’t want players to be people.”
Sociological Perspectives on Sport, by David Karen and Robert E. Washington
Genuine feelings of guilt may inhibit the recurrence of violent behavior. However, within the context of the “game frame” athletes often do not experience genuine feelings of guilt. Feelings of alienation between rival teams contribute to a dehumanization of the opponent. The degree to which opponents are treated as objects or obstacles to be overcome, rather than a human being who’s role is to help elevate the level of the game, appears to be related to the degree of contact in the particular sport.
“Why, of course, the people don’t want war,” Goering shrugged. “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”
Some people argue that problems only arise because of “unhealthy competition,” which must be squelched. But this is nonsense. Competition is inherently unhealthy, as countless studies in sociology has decisively demonstrated. Competition lowers creativity, lowers motivation, lowers empathy, and is an obstacle to learning. The lower empathy is particularly relevant here since sports and war, especially, cannot be taken seriously without dehumanization taking place. Few people are interested in sports or war for the sake of the activity itself. They are interested mostly in “winning.” Without “winning,” these activities lose most of their interest.
There is an aura of nobility associated with competition, especially with sports and war. I believe it has a lot to do with that need for finality. They are seen as more noble activities precisely because they present us with a chance to “win,” something we don’t have in our messy, non-noble daily activities. They seem more worthwhile somehow, even though these activities are really a waste: a waste of money, a waste of energy, and (especially in the case of war) a waste of human suffering and human lives. These activities are parasitic upon society: they use up and destroy existing resources instead of producing more resources. This is not a fact inherent to competitive activities (there are plenty of competitive activities that involve producing things).
The need for finality is also reflected in religious doctrines. Christianity, for example, posits that life is just a game, the objective being to be “saved,” with those who “win” getting to go to Heaven and those who “lose” getting to go to Hell or be annihilated. Again we see all of the same attributes: measurable objectives, clarity of outcome, a way to identify with the “right religion,” endless obsession over points of doctrine, lack of empathy.
The source of the problems with the need for finality is that it detaches us from reality, which is always messy and inconclusive. We want to believe that we live in a just world, where the innocent are rewarded and the guilty are punished, but reality does not fit our expectations. We therefore seek out stories, pastimes and beliefs that feed our need for finality. But these inevitably carry with them a great deal of unreality. The resolution is artificial and is based on hurting others, mentally or physically. Lowered empathy, dehumanization, objectification are made desirable in order to promote “our team.”