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"But they treasure, secretly treasure, the times they lost. It's a sacrifice, of sorts": Why We Keep Watching Sports

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | February 6, 2013 | Comments ()


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My name is Steven, and I am a 49ers fan. But I don't really need to be here, I really could stop at any time.

As I watched the last pass fall incomplete, the seconds trickling, and then the final gasp at a return, I fell to the floor of the living room, where I'd been pacing since the beginning of the fourth quarter. This did not matter. I know that. Even as the anguish or elation erupted out throughout the game, I could have rationally told you that it did not matter.

Caring about sports is the ultimate exercise in futility. You have no control over the outcome, and the outcome does not affect your life in any way other than how you allow it. We live and breathe and die for things that do not matter. The real question is why we bother at all.

Spectator sports are a lottery of emotion. All things being equal (and of course they're not from year to year), in any given year rooting for your football team has a 97% chance of breaking your heart. But unlike a lottery, every time you lose, the eventual payoff increases. Psychologically at least, the accumulation of heartbreak over the course of the lifetime of a fan somehow increases the ecstasy of someday winning it all. There is all sorts of pop psychology written about this. Some insist that it's just an illusory excuse, the sort of thing that fans tell themselves during the lean years in order to get them through it. Others insist the opposite, that the accumulation of sports tragedy actually does make eventual victory that much sweeter.

I think we need the losing though. I think the losing is what we're really in it for. In American Gods, Neil Gaiman argues that the secret to understanding gambling is to realize that gamblers don't play for the occasional win, but in fact play because they lose. Rather than gambling being an irrational attempt to win in the face of known odds, it is a perfectly rational attempt to lose. Losing gives the catharsis of sacrifice. And when it comes to rooting for a sports team, the same logic seems to emerge. The odds of ending the season happy are so abysmal, that in a rational sense you'd be better off going down to the casinos and putting your glass cage of emotion down on the blackjack table.

There is a lot of other pop psychology written about how sports are a sort of transference, an attempt by masses who would have once been stalking jungles and living in constant fear and violence, to reconnect with some primal bit of bullshit. Or how spectator sports are an outlet for the same instincts that make a million of us swarm to recruiting stations when the Germans sink a ship in some harbor most of us can't find on a map. We've got all the strains of proto-nationalism going in our sports fandoms: riots after championships, the inevitable stabbing of somebody wearing the wrong colored jersey, the proud "Jeter's Mom Has AIDs" t-shirts.

It's enough for the high-minded individual to write off sports fandom entirely, and judging by the comment threads on most sports websites, that would seem like a logical conclusion. Sports often get written off as entertainment of the lowest sort, something that takes up inordinate television time and entertainment dollars without overlapping with anything we might label art.

But far from being independent of art, a love of sport is a reflection of exactly the same emotional wiring that allows us to enjoy any story. Not simply the empathy, but the machinery that allows us to make a conscious decision that this thing that objectively does not matter actually does matter to our emotional state. We can flip a mental switch and suddenly an external stimulus can cause us pain and joy. We care about what happens in a story because of empathy, because of an ability to override our brain's rationality and suspend like magic our knowledge that the story is not real. To not be able to feel for the characters in a story is pure sociopathy, it is a rational mind that cannot hook itself up to empathy.

Rather than being something primitive and unrelated to art, sports are in a sense the purest expression of this phenomenon. We suspend disbelief, we flip that switch, and we feel the extremes of pain and joy, completely divorced from any context, from any story that explains to us why we're allowed to feel those things.

When we finish reading a great story, we run it over and over again in our heads, feeling over and over again the same rushes of emotion. And with truly great tragedy, our mind rebels a little, it runs those memories over and over again trying to find a way around, trying to will into existence an alternative route that avoids the tragedy. That's what happens too after a gut punch loss in sports. A million fans go to sleep with a final play running in their heads over and over again, willing the fingertips to reach an extra inch, with positively Shakespearean emotion. And all it would take to stop this pain is to listen to the rational side of your brain that knows absolutely certainly that the stumbling of that ball into the grass does nothing to your life at all.

In Frank Herbert's Dune, there is the test of the Gom Jabbar, the pass-fail final exam of the human race. There is a little box that causes you the most unimaginable pain. But at your neck is held a minuscule poisoned needle, and therein lies the catch. Endure pain or die. No animal can pass this test, most people cannot either, for that matter, but the ability of the rational mind to govern the reptilian one is what makes us human. Sports are not the barbarian within us come roaring out. They are in fact the ultimate expression of how far removed we are from the animal. We can take the pain and subvert it into something beautiful. We can make the agony our own, simply because we decide to.

Symbols matter exactly because they don't matter. So do sports. But I can quit at anytime.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • ,

    Sports has enough opportunity for little individual reinforcing victories during a long season that everybody wins at least some of the time. Even if your team goes 2-14, you were better than somebody for a day.

    "I think we need the losing though. I think the losing is what we’re really in it for."

    I'm a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. You're wrong. Trust me.

  • ,

    Actually, looking at that again, I think sports fans and gamblers need the losing in the sense that the more losses that pile up, the more assured a certain breed of fan/gambler becomes that a winning streak is just around the corner, that against all odds there will be a cosmic balancing of the scales at some point that will make everything right. Is this what the "Gambler's Fallacy" means? In the case of the sports fan, at least, this doesn't have to cost a lot of money but CAN be expensive in terms of emotional investment.

  • kirbyjay

    Boston fan. I lived through the heartbreak of the Cardiac Kids in 67, we actually had tvs brought into the classrooms so we could watch the playoff day games ( yeah, they had them back then). Suffered through 75 and 86 and finally, finally, finally got to rejoice in 04.

    I've been a Patriots fan since the 70's when they drafted Jim Plunkett and suffered through some pretty dismal years only to be rewarded with 01, 03 and 04 and a decade and more of exceptional football.

    I cheered with the Big Bad Bruins in 70 and 72 but lost interest in hockey when Bobby Orr was traded ( Blasphemy)

    Celtics have always delivered.

    I guess my point is, I love my teams, it's all about the geography to me, Do I watch the Superbowl , the World Series, the Stanley Cup playoffs or the NBA Championships if my team isn't in them. No, I don't. I could care less. I guess that makes me more of a Boston fan than a sports fan, but I love the elation that a championship brings to my state.

  • Kballs

    And all it would take to stop this pain is to listen to the rational
    side of your brain that knows absolutely certainly that the stumbling of
    that ball into the grass does nothing to your life at all.

    Tell that to the people getting stabbed at Raiders games.

  • SnowMan

    Kevin Dyson baby!
    (For all of you non-sports-fan Pajibans, that's the player being tackled in the picture).
    One of my best friends growing up. In junior high, he was responsible for arranging my first kiss by "fixing" a game of spin the bottle to assure that I ended up in a laundry room with the girl I was crushing on. What a man (or "boy," I guess, at the time)!
    I wish he'd made that touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIV. At least we'll always have the Music City Miracle.

    Great piece, SLW.

  • Kballs

    Nice. Now I REALLY wish he'd gotten that touchdown. That's a true friend right there.

  • Wembley

    Church of $cientology has nothing on sports.

  • Tinkerville

    I have no opinion about sports whatsoever, but this was an excellent read.

  • Scully

    "We live and breathe and die for things that do not matter. The real question is why we bother at all."

    Wait, this article is about sports? There should be a spoiler warning- equivalent for brokenhearted souls, SLW. Sports or otherwise. Christ.

  • the_wakeful

    And now I'm reliving the Broncos' ridiculous loss to the Raven a month ago and trying not to cry at my desk. I live in SF, so I had to survive the emotional onslaught of a Ravens win TWICE.

  • e jerry powell

    But...

    How many times have the Giants won the World Series in the last five years?

    I'm a Rangers fan. My ass is CHAPPED.

  • Kballs

    That loss was a motherfucker. A dirty goddamned motherfucker.

  • chato

    Exactly. What a gut punch that was.

  • mzbitca

    Sports are a story, only a story that has real life consequences and people that are elevated on real life pedestals.

    If a favorite character in a tv show does something you view as out of character, you can blame it on the writers for ruining it, I've seen people do that even when it was incredibly obvious that this behavior was part and parcel of the persons character, but when a character gets idolized, people will believe nothing but good (witness the Breaking Bad fans who view Walt positively). We see such a small sliver of these players lives and when they do something negative in the three dimensional world they live in where they are actual people we react as though in the middle of Goblet of Fire, Harry turned around and punched Hermoine right in the mouth. We treat sports like stories, with unfounded attachments to teams that developed when we were kids and have more to do with hometown pride and memories with our friends/parents than any rational excuse. The same reason my husband and I fight over which movie is better The Goonies or Back to the Future. Our arguments can't be objective, too much of our childhood and memories are wrapped up in it.

    It's the beauty and downfall of sports. It's playing story time with real people. Look at a message board after a sports game and imagine it's a forum arguing over star wars/Star trek, or look at the reaction to bad reviews of the Avengers. It's not based in logic, it's based in love and investment that comes from a real human place.

  • seannyd

    I simply don't understand the emotional connection to sports teams. I used to. I used to be a die hard Red Wings fan when I was younger. Living my entire life in metro Detroit has surrounded me with LOTS of crazy fans of the Tigers, Lions, Pistons, Wolverines, Spartans, you name it. But then I got older and began to realize that it's just all entirely arbitrary. And it killed my passion.

    I also grew up a Wolverines fan and went to Michigan State. So while I was always perfectly satisfied to see the Spartans win, I didn't understand why people just HATED U of M so much. Sure people have their reasons to justify the rivalry, but it all seemed so trumped up. These are institutions of higher learning and you hate them because of a football team? And it's not the idea of rivalry. I can understand a friendly rivalry, but the hatred that these rivalries inspire sour me from sports.

    So when my favorite team wins or loses, it makes no difference on my life. Because I didn't have anything to do with it.

  • Kballs

    You can carve out your own sportscentric space independent from other people's feelings about sports, you know. I used to spend a lot of my fan-time hating rival teams but have come to simply dislike them because they stand in the way of my happiness and the success of my teams. It's exhausting to actively hate something, especially that over which I have zero control. I LOVE sports and will watch the championship of just about anything competitive, usually rooting for the underdog as I fall directly into the ideas so beautifully explained by SLW.

    I steer clear from the frothing-at-the-mouth fans because they poison my experience, ESPECIALLY if they're a fan of teams I like. It's distasteful, like you said, but I refuse to eliminate those moments . . . you know what I'm talking about . . . Laettner's shot . . . The Miracle on Ice . . . . . . Gibson limping around the bases . . . all that shit. And nothing is better than a team you like finally winning. It's glorious. Honestly, when the Red Sox made the final outs in the ALCS and World Series in '04, it was nearly orgasmic mentally. I saw stars and got chills all over my body. If you love sports enough, you will NOT let anyone stand in the way of those moments. Because they'll happen. May take longer for some than others, but they'll happen.

  • seannyd

    See, I respect the athleticism, the fighting adversity against all odds aspect of sports. Those moments you mentioned are truly moving. But it's all so tainted for me being surrounded by lots of ridiculous people and seeing these athletes and owners fight over millions and millions to play a game. But at the same time, I just don't have the same passion for sports as a lot of others do. I just wish they'd get back to basics.

    Who knows? Maybe I'll start singing a different tune once the Lions win the Superbowl.

  • David Sorenson

    You're a Wings fan.....and you don't understand hatred? Even for the Avs? Claude Lemieux? Patrick Roy?

    I'm not much for sports rivalries myself, but I still have the sweet taste of the hatred from that one. Two top notch teams meeting during the regular season and the playoffs in a near constant battle for dominance. That alone was incredible, but the personalities are what made it the greatest rivalry in sports. You had the stoic captains in Sakic and Yzerman. Lemieux's cheap shot on Draper made him the perfect villain and McCarty the blue collar hero. Patrick Roy was as arrogant as he was talented, and I lived to see Vernon and Osgood punch the crap out of him. It was the perfect sports rivalry.

  • seannyd

    I remember those times, and I was actively hating the Avalanche. But as I got older, I just didn't know why I cared. Sure, Lemieux was an idiot, but an idiot is an idiot no matter what team he played for. Can't say I would have been a huge fan of Ty Cobb back in the day either, no matter my enjoyment of the Tigers. But I get what you're saying. And watching goalies fight was a pretty memorable experience. Haha.

  • e jerry powell

    Could be worse. You could live in Alabama.

    They poison trees over that shit.

  • Kballs

    They're going to pull those trees down soon. I'm a Vols fan and can still feel the tragedy of this moment.

  • e jerry powell

    Grrrrr.

    What did those fucking trees ever do to anyone?

    Dirty cousin-fuckers. Just idiotic.

  • L.O.V.E.

    I like football because I enjoy a swift kick to the crotch every Sunday from September through January.
    Fucking Chargers.

  • David Sorenson

    Detroit Lions fan here. Don't expect sympathy from me. Their record for Sunday crotch kicks can only be tied. It will never be beaten.

  • Kballs

    You're both beat by the Cleveland Browns ('80s playoff games and god hating Cleveland) and Buffalo Bills (four straight Super Bowl losses will never be topped). Sorry. They've turned bludgeoned testicles into an art form.

  • David Sorenson

    The Detroit Lions managed to lose every game in a season. Every single game. I'm supposed to feel bad because Buffalo was a brides maid? The Lions had a restraining order keeping them from a hundred yards of the church.

  • Kballs

    I've found it hurts a lot more when your team is good enough to win it all and finds painful, excruciating ways to lose. I'm a Redskins fan and have seen them suck for 20 years. That wasn't even close to watching the Sox lose in the '03 playoffs. But that's just me. I can deal with long term misery. I can't handle sudden, traumatic disappointment.

  • e jerry powell

    Could be worse. You could be a Cowboys fan.

  • the_wakeful

    As a Broncos fan, I concur. Fucking Chargers.

  • periwinkled

    The only sports ticket I've held onto was for game 5 in the NLCS last October, the one where the Washington Nationals lost so spectacularly (up 6-0 at the end of the 3rd, the Cards came back to take it 9-7). I am a devoted Nats fan. When I came home from that game, I wanted to toss the ticket. I wanted to toss the t-shirt I'd bought. Instead, I put the t-shirt on and stuck the ticket in the corner of a picture frame. Being at that game was incredible. It was ultimately heartbreaking, but it made me FEEL like nothing else I can think of. Even watching Amy Pond vanish had nothing on standing outside on a cold October night, watching the team I love lose.

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