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