Reconsidering Sports

There is nothing wrong with playing sports. Nor is there anything wrong with watching sports; it is always a pleasure to see things well done. But there is something mysteriously wrong about rooting for a team.

Soccer riots are an obvious example of the dangers of supporting one's team too enthusiastically. People have been killed in soccer riots. It doesn't make sense to celebrate a victory or mourn a defeat with violence. But does it make sense to celebrate a victory or mourn a defeat at all? What has been won or lost? Pride? Why should the accomplishments of professional athletes be a source of pride? Who are we to them or they to us?

They seem to be our country, our city, our school. Team loyalty mirrors other forms of loyalty, nationalism in particular. Team games are symbolic wars. Nationalism is one of the strongest emotions. When nationalism goes wrong, as it so often does, it is a force of great destruction. Games, on the other hand, are just that: games. When countries fight, they kill. Victory and defeat mean everything, including life and death, to the warring sides. At games, where victory and defeat mean nothing at all, the emotional involvement is as great as in a war. That makes no sense.

Logical or not, it shouldn't matter if people invest their emotions in unimportant things. If one's honor or self-esteem is bound up with irrelevant factors, so be it. Everyone should have the right to be interested in whatever they want to be. If people want to root for their teams, they shouldn't have to prove that victory is important. If they consider it important, then it is important to them. But there is a problem. Too much of the world's corruption, too much of its violence is linked to sports. In America, universities are under pressure to violate their own rules for the sake of their teams. The world is kind to athletes.

"Kindness" may be the wrong word. The world, or at least certain segments of it, approves of violence when committed by athletes. Why did so many people support American athlete O. J. Simpson when he was charged with murder? Why was Simpson different from any other person charged with two sordid crimes? Because he is an athlete, that's why. Rules of morality are threatened by the corruption surrounding the world of sports. Why is so much attention lavished on sports? Sports don't matter.

Is there something corrupting about being interested in the unimportant? Offhand, the answer should be no. Perhaps gambling is the link. Gambling--making or hoping to make large sums of money without providing goods or services--has often attracted criminals. Yet there is nothing inherently dishonest about gambling. For that matter, there is nothing inherently antisocial about sports.

The world is filled with violence and dishonesty, most of it in no way connected to sports. Most sports fans--and most people are sports fans--are a normal cross-section of humanity. Most games end without violence. Most athletes do not play dirty. What, then, can be wrong about rooting for one's team?

But think. Would the crowds that lined the roads to cheer for O. J. Simpson as he was attempting to escape to Mexico before his trial have done so had he merely been a singer or actor or politician? Of course not. Sports are a phenomenon that makes smart people stupid.

This essay was published in The Blessed Human Race by George Jochnowitz.