Why Do We Watch Sports or Why Am I Here?

You have to understand that there are only about twenty five hundred of us in our Village. This time of year, when the city folks go home and we get our Village back, it’s impossible to walk downtown to pick up the mail or drop into a shop without enjoying two or three warm conversations. Even those we don’t know are recognized and acknowledged with a greeting or wave. Consider that when picturing me wedged into a folding chair that was a little too small within a concrete bowl that was altogether too big. Last Saturday I attended a Toronto Blue Jay’s game.

After two or three innings I found myself pondering the existential: “Why am I here?” In fact, why were any of the 47,093 other people there? That crazy number meant that you could shoehorn my entire Village into the little blue seats 20 times and still have room for the rich folks in the plush boxes up top. What could possibly attract so many people?

Why Am I Here

(Photo: jaysjournal.com)

Part of it is the sport itself. Like the others, I assume, I love baseball. I love that unlike every other sport the defense has the ball. I love that there is no standard size park, no standard game time, and no sudden death. I love the metaphor of each pitch where every player determines what will happen next and that nearly everyone is always wrong. I love baseball’s long history and that Jackie Robinson’s number is retired in every park in the league. I love the arcane statistics. I love baseball so much that it is the only sport, other than solitary running, that I still play. I am the worst player on what this season was the worst team in my league but I still love it so.

What I don’t like is watching baseball. I read about the games the next morning and occasionally listen on the radio but last Saturday was the first game I’ve watched all year. I find sports on TV boring beyond belief. The commercials make me mad. The mindless chatter is infuriating. I don’t watch any sports. I don’t watch the Olympics. So, again, last Saturday, in the ugly, sterile old Roger’s Centre, which I still call the Sky Dome thank you very much, I pondered what in hell I was doing there.

A couple of years ago Eric Simons attempted to answer my question with a book entitled The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession. Simons goes immediately to what I felt last Saturday: gathering in great numbers at great expense and becoming emotionally charged while watching grown people play a child’s game is irrational. And yet, it’s not.

Simon’s found that when even a nominally conversant spectator watches a game that the motor cortex of his brain – the part that sparks movement – fires with the same rapidity and intensity as a player’s. So when the ball is hit, we actually live the experience of tearing off to first or diving to catch it. He found that watching a sport increases hormone levels. The men fist bumping each other as if they had just hit the home run feel a measurable and significant testosterone and adrenaline rush. People love those feelings. They are more intense, Simons concludes, when at the park and so folks return like drunks to the bottle to feel them again.

Sociologist Stephen Rosslyn takes my question further by arguing that cheering for a particular team allows us to locate a part of our identity. We feel a little better about ourselves because we are a part of a group. It’s what the folks who really sing their anthem or chant USA USA are feeling. It’s why a guy I know tattooed the Detroit Red Wings symbol on his chest or why so many license plates sport team logos.

The need to feel part of a group is related to something called a social prosthetic system. That is, we voluntarily invest ourselves in an outcome over which we have no control and become addicted to the risks and rewards. The investment is fun because unlike in love or at work it has no real costs.

Finally, there is the primal urge, down deep in our brains where reason goes to die, to gather in tribal celebration. Last Saturday I looked around and pictured folks at Rome’s Coliseum watching lions devour Christians. Add ridiculously overpriced beer and the spectacle, emotions, cheers, separation of privileged and cheap seats, and the slow going home to the ordinary concerns of every day lives when it all ended would have been the same.

So there I was last Saturday telling my dumb old brain to stop pondering such thoughts and just shut up and enjoy the game and its attendant craziness. It was great. I loved it. My granddaughter loved it. She ate way too much junk food but that’s OK. She giggled as we watched the sneaky guys on first trying to steal second. She jumped and cheered long fly balls and danced so heartily at a Bautista home run that she was shown on the giant Jumbotron. After the game she waited with her Mom in a Disneyesque long line and ran the bases. She slept all the way home, another warm memory secured deep in her being.

Okay. I know why I was there.

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Redemption Earned and Denied

Every novel, play, movie, and TV episode is the same. From Gilgamesh to Game of Thrones they all have three parts. The first act introduces the protagonist and the major conflict he needs to address. The second finds him torn down by difficulties he either creates himself or has visited upon him. The protagonist digs deep into his psyche, revisits what truly matters, recommits to that in which he once believed, and reinvents himself. If the work is done sincerely and well, the third act finds him stronger than ever, at one with his true self, and with redemption earned. The cowboy rides into the sunset, lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, and the mother and child hug as the last page is turned, the curtain falls, or the screen fades to black.

American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Last Tycoon, “There are no second acts in American lives.” He was suggesting that Americans want to avoid the hard work of existential angst and introspection. Instead, they seek short cuts from the first to third acts. Fitzgerald observed, “The tragedy of these men was that nothing in their lives had really bitten deep at all.” They want rewards without cost, rights without responsibilities, and redemption without reflection.

Sadly, too many examples afford credence to Fitzgerald’s observation. Consider Richard Nixon. He used dirty tricks to win the presidency in 1968 and again 1972. He then illegally spied upon and attacked enemies whom he considered anyone who disagreed with him or his worldview. He treated questions as disloyalty, senior staff as attack dogs, the constitution as an annoyance, and those he was there to serve as saps. Watergate was unique only because he got caught.

After resigning in disgrace, he tried to ignite his third act by writing a number of books but it didn’t work. In interviews and his memoirs, he admitted mistakes and regret for having let Americans down but insisted that Watergate was simply a low rent burglary that should never have destroyed a presidency. He could never admit that it was never really about the break in. Rather, the scandal centred upon the clumsy attempts to cover up and manage mistakes, his reckless disrespect for political culture and proper process, and his flaunting of the spirit as much as the letter of the law.

Americans instinctively recognized that Nixon was attempting to pull a Fitzgerald and skip from acts one to three. They had none of it. They have still not forgiven him. For Richard Nixon, there has been no redemption.

Redemption has no shortcuts. This is a tough truth. We have all done something for which we feel regret and perhaps shame. To move forward there is simply no option save entering the dark and difficult second act and then demonstrating, not just talking about, fundamental change. In January 2011, Dr. Alex Lickerman wrote in Psychology Today, “We must fully recognize that we’ve done wrong; fully accept responsibility for having done it; determine never to do it again; apologize to those we’ve done it to (if appropriate); and resolve to aim at improving ourselves in the general direction of good.”

We can’t say we’re sorry if we don’t really mean it and it won’t matter anyway if we can’t or won’t change. We can’t fool others and, in the end, we can’t fool ourselves. After all, if a faulty steering wheel put us in the ditch, then saying sorry without fixing the wheel will have us off the road again in no time. We become childhood’s refugees, blaming colleagues, bosses, staff, parents, spouses, the stars, an interfering or absent God, and anything and anyone but ourselves. Our families, organizations, or companies, unfortunately and unfairly, pay the highest price for our obstinacy. In such circumstances we deserve to be removed from the driver’s seat through dismissal, divorce, social exile, or, in Nixon’s case, resignation.

For what it’s worth, I think Fitzgerald was wrong. I sincerely believe that most of us are willing and capable of undertaking a second act journey. Right now there are many among us struggling to rescue relationships, marriages, leadership positions, and ultimately themselves. Celebrate them. But watch warily. Those willing to do the work with humility and sincerity, and who are of sufficiently sound moral rectitude, will find old enablers and habits gone but ultimately see second act efforts rewarded with forgiveness earned and redemption deserved.

May we live and work with these people. May we be these people.

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The Urge to Scream “I Am Here!”

This morning I noticed that a hydro box across from the East City restaurant where I meet my father for breakfast every Sunday had been spray-painted. Large, blue, drippy letters screamed: MAX. I don’t know Max but he certainly wants us to know him, or at least, know of him. Maybe Max is the kid on the corner with the hair, clothes, and piercings that beg to be noticed or the quiet kid in the back of the class or maybe even the ambitious young man slaving away in the cubicle that the boss never seems to visit.

Max’s urge is ancient. We have always wanted to immortalize ourselves. In the Second World War, the first American soldiers to arrive anywhere drew on buildings, bridges, and abandoned vehicles a rough figure of a man looking over a wall with the caption, “Kilroy Was Here.” At the Potsdam conference where postwar Europe was planned, Americans built a special washroom for Stalin, Truman, and Churchill. Stalin was the first to use it and upon returning asked, “Who is Kilroy?”

Broadcast or Live Your Life. (Photo: qwsim.flight1.net)

Most of us want something more personal. Hospitals, schools, galleries, and more boast names on brass plaques and atop buildings so we know who donated the cash to construct them. The philanthropy is good but the naming instructive. The urge’s obscene extreme lies in Donald Trump’s outlandish monuments to himself, each with his name glaringly displayed.

Are Trump and the philanthropists merely peacetime Kilroys or Max with money? Is publicly recording our name a primal or spiritual desire to make sense of our brief lives through recognition and remembrance?

Maybe it’s the same urge that leads to our wanting pictures of ourselves. Consider our walls and old-fashioned photo albums, rich with family pictures of good times and travels. But these are private records, unlike Greek and Roman emperors who posed for statues and Renaissance Lords for paintings as public demonstrations of wealth and power. They were slow-motioned selfies.

In 1839, Philadelphia’s Robert Cornelius set up his camera, rushed before it, and created the world’s first photographic selfie. Selfies were encouraged in 2009 when Facebook asked for profile pictures and democratized in 2010 when Apple’s I-Phone 4 produced the first forward-facing camera. Private became public. Diary entries formerly protected by tiny locks were suddenly blasted through global megaphones.

In January 2015, Psychology Today summarized studies concluding that those who take and post lots of selfies are narcissistic and guilty of self-objectification. That is, in an apparent contradiction, they have an inflated view of their self worth while simultaneously associating that worth with their physical appearance. American doctors noted a startling number of young people asking to be surgically altered for the sole reason of looking better in selfies. Another study suggested that those who post a lot of selfies may not be narcissistic or self-objective when they begin, but repeatedly posting the images turns them that way.

Numerous studies have concluded that while harming ourselves we are also tearing society’s fabric which is based on humility and mutual accommodation. Too many of us have become more concerned with reporting on our lives than living them. We rob ourselves of fully enjoying an experience by stepping outside of special moments to instead fashion images of us appearing to have fun. We have become more concerned with online followers and “friends” than real friends, often turning away from real friends to interact with faux online ones. As a comedian once observed, “Do you want to test your online friend list? Post that you’re moving on Saturday and see whose there to help lift your fridge.”

We’ll survive. The teenage girls now duck-facing and gape-mouth smiling into their cameras will grow up and so will Max. Plus, like always, as soon as enough adults start posting selfies, it will cease to be cool and kids will move on. But we will adopt whatever new technology allows us to deal with the old urge some feel to scream “We are Here!” as did the Whos to Horton. Meanwhile, according to psychologists, the happiest among us will spend less time recording our lives or caring about people we barely know in order to more fully enjoy those lives and the ones we love.

Broadcast or Live Your Life (Photo: http://www.teachpeace.com)

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