Monday, December 29, 2008

Confession of an indifferent sports observer

Noam Chomsky once observed that professional sports in America have the effect of keeping the minds of American citizens distracted from important issues. The culture of following sports teams and caring about which ones win and which ones lose is part of a larger culture of distraction and superficiality; sports can be part of the phenomenon of what Neal Postman discussed in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

I still recall vividly the moment at which I stopped being interested in spectator sport. I was in high school at the time and was attending a home game of my high school's football team. Like everyone else in the stands, I was yelling and screaming and cheering our team to victory. My heart sank every time the home team fumbled or had a pass intercepted, and I became ecstatic every time the home team moved closer to scoring another goal. Quite suddenly I felt as if I were being lifted out of my personality and given a chance to look at myself as an external observer might see me, and I was overwhelmed with how utterly silly it all was. A moment later, as I settled back into feeling as if I were within myself again, I realized I actually did not care at all who won the game. If one side wins, I thought, the other side will lose. No matter what happens, someone will go home disappointed. I stopped cheering. I sat down and watched the rest of the game without caring in the least which team won. I have never cared which team wins a contest since then. Not caring who wins a game makes games pretty dull viewing, so I have spent remarkably little of my adult life watching sporting events. For a while, when I was first in Canada, I watched hockey on television from a detached perspective. It fascinated me. It seemed to me like ballet interrupted by occasional fist fights.

A friend of my parents was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Second World War. He had a German surname and spoke German fluently. It came to his attention that when German-speaking American prisoners of war were returned to the United States, they were carefully cross-examined to see whether they really were Americans or were English-speaking German spies posing as Americans. The rumor was that one way of identifying genuine Americans was to ask them questions about sports. Who played shortstop for the Red Sox? Which teams played in the 1937 World Series? Who held the American League record for stolen bases? My parents' friend hated sports and had no idea what the answers to any of those questions were. He lived the war dreading being interrogated by Americans; he was sure they would conclude he was a spy. That story has always stayed with me; like my parents' friend, I have been confident that I would fail a quiz on sports with drooping colors. I didn't even know who O.J. Simpson was until somebody told me he was already famous as a sports hero before he went on trial as a result of being accused of murdering his wife.

My attitude toward sporting events carries over to my attitude toward wars. I really do not care at all who wins a war. To be more accurate, I don't believe anyone ever wins a war. Wars have plenty of losers, and they are found on all sides of the conflict. They have no winners. Those who believe a war has been, or can be, won suffer from delusions. I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” Sports waste time. Wars are much more serious. They waste life and property and resources. Despite the dramatic difference in the magnitude of the disaster involved, sports have much in common with wars. Competitive sports prepare the American psyche for war. It feeds the American tendency to love winners and to see losers as, well, losers. It is difficult to imagine a pacifist society in which football or basketball had more than a handful of fanatical followers. (It is worth recalling that the English word “fan” is a shortened form of the word “fanatic.”

So here comes New Year's Day. I used to hate this holiday more than all others. Everyone I knew was busy watching football games on television. It was for me the loneliest day of the year. Now that I'm a bit older, I have learned to like my own company much better and can easily spend the day reading books, taking walks, enjoying the trees and birds and squirrels or tidying up my desk to make room for the clutter of another year. The clutter always arrives. It's one thing I know I can count on.

Whether you are a sports fanatic or not, I wish you a Happy New Year. May all your favorite teams all win, whoever they are.