“I remember I was a high school student when I asked myself, ‘Why am I cheering for my high school football team? I don’t know anyone on it… Why do I care if they win or some guy a couple blocks away wins?’” – Noam Chomsky
“You play to win the game.” – Herm Edwards
It was a school night, but I remember staying up to watch Darius Kasparaitis score that game-winning overtime goal. It has been over a decade since, but I still watch sports a few nights a week. Every newspaper has a section devoted to them, there are multiple TV channels devoted to single leagues, and don’t even get started on the online coverage. But why? Why do so many people invest so much time, money, and emotion into sitting and watching other people play a game?
I started thinking about this question about a year ago, and there are many people who don’t understand sports or their fans who are also curious. So here is my attempted explanation of what most people, both sports fans and non-sports fans alike, miss: The difference between what we think sports are and what they actually are.
The Magnetism of Sports
I failed for years to understand how people could enjoy studio wrestling. Like most who shared my confusion I thought this was because wrestling is fake, but it is not ‘fake’ so much as it is ‘scripted.’ That adjective change helped me realize that it does not diminish the entertainment value even if somebody does know how the tale will end. Wrestling is not a sport. It is an aggressive, sweaty acting performance.
Nobody has ever turned to a friend and said, “You know that’s all fake. His friends don’t really call him Forrest Gump. Oh so now he’s just going to run across America? How can you even watch this?” The movie is clearly not real life, but like the guy yelling his head off at the wrestling match, we willingly buy into the illusion. Wrestling matches in which guys actually hit each other in the face with chairs would draw much lighter crowds.
Unlike they do for sports, no local news broadcast dedicates a nightly block of time to movies, music, TV shows, theater, or video games. We separate sports from these other forms of entertainment because they somehow feel different. They are not. Athletes are not actors, and sports involve real athletes playing unscripted games that could lead to physical injury. However, in the same way that wrestling matches and movies are not less entertaining because someone knows the ending, sports are not more entertaining because no one knows the ending. The only thing that matters to the entertainment value is that the viewer does not know the outcome.
The Illusion of Sports
One side effect of ESPN looking so much like CNN is that people think the news and sports are equally real, rather than one being entertainment. We feel emotion over fictional stories too, cough Ned Stark cough, but because it is a movie or TV show we can better compartmentalize and prevent it from negatively affecting the rest of our lives.
No matter how much it seems like the people in the upper deck are enjoying themselves, they will never feel as much pride in a victory as the players on the field. No matter how they act, we can only enjoy, truly enjoy, something that we have dedicated the hours to understanding. Clearly this couple is doing something right:
I know nothing about ballet. So while I can sit here in amazement, I suspect that I am failing to truly appreciate the finer points of what I just watched (or of violin or wine glasses). What they are doing is on a level so far above our heads that there is little illusion that we could ever do what they just did. But everybody has played catch at some point, so when we watch a football game we think from time-to-time, “That’s not so tough. I could probably complete a few passes if I was out there.” Now watch this video (specifically 2:37 to the end):
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Matt Stafford is at an en-pointe-on-a-dude’s-head level, but clearly most people could not do that. The illusion that we could, which is even stronger in baseball or golf, decreases our level of awe and makes both sports fans and non-sports fans think that we know what is happening on that field. We don’t have a damn clue.
Michael Jordan = Jimi Hendrix
The payoff of learning an instrument is not the time spent practicing in isolation. The payoff comes when you attend a concert or a jazz festival where you meet other people who enjoy playing and listening to music like you. If you could learn an instrument, but were never allowed to play it for someone else, the number of people who played would decrease dramatically. Some people would learn to play regardless (nobody reads this blog, but I write it), but there is a reason people spend a great deal more time playing guitars than they do playing solitaire.
Given the choice between watching a band perform their music live or listening to a recording where the songs are flawless every time, it’s obvious where the bigger crowd would be. Nobody wonders why people go to concerts because there is no disillusion that music is about being the best musician. Likewise, nobody thinks science fiction is about having the best costume at Comic Con. Sports, on the other hand, always have a final score. This fools sports fans, non-sports fans, and Herm Edwardses alike into thinking that sports is about being the best, and that being the best is about winning the game.
What most fail to grasp—or willingly suspend their understanding of—is that the best team very rarely wins the championship. The best team and the winning team are completely different concepts, yet the illusion they are the same persists. Remove that illusion and we see that the people who attend jazz festivals, who are in a book club, and who go to Comic Con are the same as sports fans.
Why We Actually Play (and Root)
Entertainment and pastimes are all about shared experience. You see, if most people had to go to a football game by themselves and sit alone, they would not go. They would not care if their team won 500 games in a row. Why? Sports are not about winning, and being a sports fan is not about sports. For a few nerds like me sports fandom is about learning statistics and probability. For coaches, players, and guys with telestrators it is about the challenge of how to defend LeBron James or Peyton Manning. But for everyone, being a sports fan is about spending time with friends and family.
All fandom—of sports, movies, wrestling, cooking, playing the xylophone, even philately—is about forming a connection over a mutual interest that people have spent years doing… and doing together. Every one of those activities will bring people together and make a few people happier, which is what a pastime is all about. Most people at a college football game are not there for the game, they are there because their friends are there.
The key part of the moment below is not the kid you are looking at. It is that every single one of the seats behind him is filled with somebody having a good time—maybe not as much as him, but still. The joy of these people has very little to do with the football game. In some parallel world, that same scene is being played out at a ballet. Their joy comes from the fact that they are all participating in fandom together. Sure, any of those people could have spent their Saturday night practicing guitar, but they were probably happier being with their friends.