The Problem with Spectator Sports

Looks like Noam agrees with me

Looks like Noam agrees with me

Richard Sahn

The other day I was jogging through the streets of Williamsport, PA (home of the Little League World Series) and noticed in one neighborhood three Pittsburgh Steelers flags. Although I’m not a sports fan now—I was when I was a teenager—I occasionally flip through the channels of my TV and watch a few minutes of a baseball or football game. What never ceases to amaze me is seeing tens of thousands of fans in the stadiums of these games, fans who probably seldom if ever get bored or tired observing these very uninteresting, at least from an intellectual and aesthetic perspective, events.

Day after day, at home or at the stadium or arena, fans and spectators always seem enthralled by what they see. Their enthusiasm never seems to wane. It’s a fair question to ask if the enthusiasm for watching sports events could be a major reason (no pun intended) why so many adult Americans seem to be either indifferent to or ignorant of political and social issues.  (I use the word “seem” because I can’t cite any empirical study that would support this claim; I rely here only on my personal observations and intuitive sense of the interests of the population in general.)

For instance, do most Americans know the issues in the Edward Snowden case or the reasons for the war in Iraq or why we don’t have national health insurance as every other developed country in the world has?  I doubt it.  Yet most adults (especially men) are experts in trivia related to football, baseball, hockey, and the like.  Go to an on-line comment board about Tim Tebow or A-Rod and you’ll see a few thousand impassioned and informed comments.  Go to a site on vitally important political questions and you’re lucky to see a few dozen similar comments.

Contrary to what I was taught in the early years of my education and at summer camp, I don’t believe that spectator sports have any redeeming value such as teaching fair play, sportsmanship,  promoting sensitivity to the rights of the other person.  Rather, spectator sports are a distraction, often not even an emotionally healthy distraction, from the important things which are going on in the world and in one’s own personal life. In fact, rooting for a team to win in any sport entails being out of touch with reality since teams are really only abstract concepts.  For most fans, the teams have no real existence except in one’s head.  Players, coaches, and team contracts exist as do stadiums and arenas but not “teams,” and sports fans root for teams.

The cognitive process of treating abstract concepts as if they were real entities, as if they were persons or groups of people, is called reification. For example, if all the players of the Pittsburgh Steelers and their coaches were traded overnight to the San Francisco Forty Niners it would be the height of absurdity to continue to root or support the Steelers or the Forty Niners if one has been a fan of one or the other team.

A ball club doesn’t exist without its players; otherwise it’s just a name.  Recall here the Jerry Seinfeld joke that due to constant personnel turnover what fans really end up rooting for is laundry (team jerseys) rather than a team.

Now, there is nothing morally suspect about being a sports fan or cheering on a team even if the team is just an abstract concept. But being an ardent sports fan is often a major, even toxic, distraction from learning about and acting on the vital political and social issues of our time.

Even more importantly, an argument can be made that spectator sports help to foster the “we” vs. them” perspective: citizens of a nation defining themselves as the “we” who must be fighting a perpetual enemy in the world, or within their own society, in order to maintain a sense of  identity or purpose in life. To paraphrase John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” imagine there’s no “them,” only “us.”

Could teaching people what reification is promote world peace?

Imagine if we could fill sports stadiums and arenas to overflowing with impassioned fans cheering for world peace.  It’s easy if you try.

Richard Sahn is a professor of sociology and an at-large contributor to The Contrary Perspective.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Spectator Sports

  1. I am an Australian, and Australians are potentially the most sports-obsessed nation in the world (I have no empirical evidence either, but believe me, if you lived here, you wouldn’t need your intuition to know it!) I am not a brainwashed denizen (at least, that’s what I’ve been told to think, right!), yet I still enjoy spectator sports. I wonder if perhaps there is a false dichotomy at work here. My question is this: is it possible to be an active, engaged, thinking citizen, making informed, rational and constructive contributions to society, and also a sports fan?

    Here’s what I think about spectator sports. I’d be interested in your thoughts. I believe that sports serve a narrative function in society, much like theatre or cinema, or even art or music. Spectators are taken on a narrative journey from the kick-off to the final whistle, watching the protagonists (their team) struggle with the antagonist (the opposition). There is a natural desire to see the protagonists (and by extension, one’s self) overcome the antagonists. But unlike in theatre or cinema, there are no guarantees, because there is no ‘author’ (which is why sports fans despise match-fixing). While spectator sports lack the intellectual satisfaction of a well-constructed narrative, they do have the heightened intensity of a kind of chaos which more closely resembles real life, where the good guys don’t always win. This helps people to see their own struggles, triumphs and failures played out before them, which surely has a positive psychological impact, increasing wellbeing. (I’d love to see a study on this point. I’m sure there is one somewhere… I’ll get back to you!) It may even help people to interpret and understand others people’s struggles, or society’s struggles. I think of working-class Australians in the union movement, watching the ‘footy’ on the weekend, and going on strike to receive better conditions during the week (for an example of a great Australian struggle between the working classes and the establishment, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_ban)

    At no point does any of this paint spectator sport a conspiracy seeking to keep people ignorant. I watch sports most weekends, but I hope you can see that I am not ignorant! I would argue that it is entertainment with the potential for catharsis and even wider engagement.

    Here’s the pinch. I think your criticism of spectator sports only holds when a person is so obsessed with sports that they don’t think (or care) about family, society or humanity. But spectator sports are not inherently evil or destructive, any more than music or cinema or art. If you are obsessed with these art-forms, you could be equally distracted from the important issues of the world outside of art, in much the same way as a sports-fan is left ignorant of topics outside of sport (as an Australian, I see this all the time). But engaging with them constructively helps you to understand both yourself and the world around you.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this perspective.

    • Note from Richard Sahn:

      I agree with you essentially. Your points are very well taken, especially the line about spectator sports being a catharsis in the same way sitting in the audience at a music concert or ballet is. But I think here in the U.S. spectator sports have become all consuming for too many people, suppressing interest in vital political and social concerns. Certainly interest in the existential issues of life and death is obstructed by the interest in, say, batting averages of baseball players.

      My guess is that, unlike Australia, Americans lack the opportunity, time and place, to chat with each other about politics, community matters, even personal psychological issues. in other words, we seem not to talk to one another anymore–except about sports. Perhaps it is because Americans work longer hours and more jobs than Australians to make ends meet.

      To be sure, there definitely is psycho-therapeutic value in spectator sports, almost by definition. Perhaps our spree mass killers and serial killers wouldn’t have such murderous intent if they were thoroughly obsessed with who won what game. What a great trade off that would be!

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