Monday, June 22, 2009

Only a game

We were thinking about sports yesterday, as we, along with millions of others, watched with rapt attention as grown men with metal sticks walked solemnly around a beautiful park, stopping occasionally to take vicious swings at little white balls.

However, if you think this post is about the meaninglessness of sports, you are only half right.

It is true that sports are meaningless. However, this does not set them apart from the rest of life. Instead, the fact that people accept sports are meaningless (or, in our parlance, absurd), makes them enormously appealing.

Consider a typical dinner party, in which conversation generally revolves around four broad areas: 1) bland issues/small talk (eg, the weather), 2) family (kids, etc.), 3) controversial issues (eg, religion, politics, economics, global warming), and 4) sports. In everything except sports (and exempting most small talk), people's false belief that these topics "matter" lead to conflict.

Global warming "debates," for example, tend to break down into recitations of talking points from opposite sides of the issue, with neither participant particularly interested (or simply openly hostile) to what the other has to say. Matters of religion, meanwhile, are even worse. As Sam Harris wrote in his terrific book The End of Faith, "certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others." Indeed, Harris' central claim--that religion is fundamentally dangerous because it, first, requires believers to accept unprovable "truths," and second, by definition imposes a hierarchy based on those "truths"--is an extraordinarily powerful refutation of the generally accepted notion that religion is, on the whole, quite benign.

But we digress. The relevant issue is that sports matter no more or less than politics, religion, global warming, or even the potential (as explored in a notably poor made-for-TV movie last night) that an asteroid could ricochet off the moon and threaten the survival of the Earth. Yet for some reason most people see the absurdity of sports far more clearly than that of the rest of life.

Indeed, we are often bemused by fans' reactions when a sports player gets injured. Generally, when a player gets injured an ominous quiet falls over the stadium, as people hold their breath and look on in hopes the player is not seriously injured. (This is particularly true if the injured player is a member of the home team.) Then, as the player exits the field, fans and announcers alike wax poetic on how meaningless the game is when compared with the injured player's health.

But hold on a minute. If we all agree that sports are meaningless, then why do we care more about professional athletes than about other people? Put a different any given sporting event there are a number of injuries (a friend of ours was once hit in the head by a foul ball at Fenway Park, for example, and required several stitches), yet people care little if at all about them. When, on the other hand, a player gets injured, the entire stadium holds its collective breath, despite the fact that the reason for the player's popularity-his prowess at sports-is something we all agree doesn't matter!

Clearly some of this has to do with familiarity and proximity--we tend to care more about people we know and those in close proximity to us, and we tend to feel we "know" athletes (even though we don't), particularly if they play for "our" team. Still, this is a situation we find absurd on many levels.

Back to the original point of this post (there was one, we promise...), we enjoy sports. We enjoy them not because they are absurd, but because everyone agrees they are absurd (well, for the most part - see above). Sports, in other words, are one of the few places where most people are able to see the water.

After all, it's only a game...

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