Sports isn’t life.
Sports is not life and death.
It’s just a game.
The men and women that play high school, college or professional sports are not gladiators. The losers aren’t put to death. And given the events that took place last weekend in Kansas City with the Chief’s Jovan Belcher and with the passing of longtime college basketball coach Rick Majerus, now seems as good a time as any to revisit exactly why we watch sports. I think that every sports fan should take time to answer that question for him or herself.
I watch sports because what we witness on that field or court is, at times, both an art and a science and can provide some of the most raw human emotion we can see as bystanders. As the motto of ABC’s Wild World of Sports put it: “It’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Sports, at their core are entertainment and a way to escape the “real” world and enter a land of make believe where I must be a better person because my team won and you’re not because your team lost. It’s a fun escape, but that’s all it is… an escape.
Like everything else in our current culture, sports has become all consuming. Thanks to 24 hour media coverage, both traditional and new and cutting edge, the line of what’s real life and what makes up the pseudo real world of sports has become blurred. Where we were once able to just watch a game and appreciate the competitors on their own merits, we now have to debate who’s got a clutch gene or what team wanted it more or where the outcome places the winners and losers in some subjective historical context. And with all that, and the strong opinions that necessitate such stark, black and white lines, being a sports fan has become much more personal.
The wins feel even better with this more personal approach and, conversely, the losses are also more personal and more painful. We, as a sports-crazed society, are to the point where we cheer player injuries and the competitors themselves have to remind us that it’s not life and death and they are not gladiators. They’re people. Fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, children. Yes, professional athletes are compensated well for their efforts, but all the money in the world won’t shield you from tragedy or the simple joys and frustrations that we all have to face.
When we dehumanize athletes, it’s easier to make our guys the heroes and their guys the villains. It makes things easier to process, but as we all now, life isn’t black and white. It’s nuanced. There’s a lot of gray area. We think we know the athletes because we can recite their stats. But, athletes are people and more than just a boxscore and we rarely know the competitors as good as we think we do, for better and for worse. Oversimplification leads some people to tweet college kids after a bad game. It leads a crazed man to poison the special trees of a rival’s campus. And it can lead to much , much worse.
Now, am I saying that I’m not going to cheer loudly for my Kentucky Wildcats? No. Am I saying that we shouldn’t be emotionally invested in our favorite sports teams? Of course not. What we should do is remember that it’s just a game. Games that are played and coached by imperfect and complex people. Just like the rest of us.