“April” according to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” “is the cruellest month”. Fans of professional sports would likely disagree as this month marks the beginning of both the NHL and NBA playoffs, the beginning of baseball’s regular season and The Masters golf tournament. This year may even provide the thrill of Toronto Maple Leafs’ participation in the grueling post-season marathon to capture the Stanley Cup.
Of course, Thomas Stearns Eliot was almost certainly not referring in his poem to the relative joy or pain of sports’ fanatics and their loyalties. “The Waste Land” is a serious poem dealing with death, rebirth, spiritual paralysis, history, sex, isolation and other heavy concerns. It is quite likely to be read and studied a hundred years from now (assuming humans survive that long), whereas the outcome of a particular sports’ game or even a league championship will generally be forgotten by most in a quarter of that time. There are exceptions of course. The date 1967 sticks in the minds of Leafs’ fans because of what has come (or failed to come) after that. And yes, there are certain hockey games I remember from 1978 or 1993 (upset victories or unrealized dreams can sear the memory), but for the most part, we can concur that sports is not the equivalent of literature. It is gripping in the moment, but much less so once the result is known. It can unify large groups of people briefly, but rarely inspires world improvement. Unlike literature, it is a means of occupying our minds by directing us away from the urgent problems of the moment. Yes, some people like to “escape” by sticking their head in a book, but if it’s really literature, it will encourage a connection back to the world and human relationships. And please don’t try to counter that sports teaches lessons too. It does, but much more significantly for the participants than the spectators. Sure, sports often requires teamwork, perseverance and dedication, but you can learn that from watching one game; you don’t need to follow teams for decades or risk losing that understanding.
So, why is it that so many people, many of them intelligent, responsible and sensitive souls, spend so much time following professional sports’ teams? Is it just out of habit? Is it a response to the insistent advertising for sports beamed at us on each and every device we use? Is it to fill time that we don’t know how to productively use? Or is it a special kind of escape from an impersonal and troubled society?
The more I think about it, the more sports provides a certain order that is lacking in so called ‘real life’. Think about the intervals in a sporting event. How long is an inning in baseball? Three outs long. There is something very comforting about that. A manager may argue whether a runner was safe or out, but no manager would dream of arguing that a team deserves four outs one inning. There are certain rules or axioms that are agreed upon by all which allow the competition to occur. A bit like mathematics when you think about it. In our democratic societies, we lack this axiomatic certainty. A law only lasts until a group of politicians decide to replace it with something else. Now it’s true that a sporting rule can change, but these are usually peripheral ones, and not the bedrock regulations that help define the sport. For example, a two line pass in hockey was once illegal, but is now permitted; this is of a different order than proposing passing itself be banned. And yes, sometimes the rule change can have a significant impact on the game; witness the introduction of the three point shot in basketball or the American League’s designated hitter rule. But notice that no one is suggesting that hockey be reduced to two periods or that baseball should do away with innings and just have the first team to score five runs win. And notice how universally upset fans get when they feel the way to determine the end of the game has been tampered with in an impure manner. I don’t know of any diehard hockey or soccer fan that approves of the shoot out as a means of determining a winner. Why? Because it is not the way the game is played, but is just a fragment of the game. Could you imagine if instead of extra innings in baseball, a pitcher threw a batter one pitch without any fielders on the diamond and he just had to hit it? It would be a travesty. The games have a certain logic.
In addition to the timing and ending of games, sports is also attractive because of the schedule. We know when the season will begin and when it will end. Many people cannot even say the same about their workday. Sports’ fans know that no matter how horribly their team performed on one day, there will be another day where they will have a fresh opportunity. Which explains all of the magic attributed to opening day or night of a season. Can you think of a sport that doesn’t have a boundary? In life, we are often looking in vain for boundaries that don’t exist. It’s comforting in sports when they do. Think of how frustrating it is in society when boundaries are vague or non-existent. For example, where is the boundary on what behavior is impeachable for a sitting President?
No doubt there is a large element of escapism in the desire to follow professional sports teams. Just as some people check “that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report” (see Ursula K. LeGuin’s excellent “Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons”) every day and that becomes their reality, others are glued to the standings of the sports leagues they follow. Some go even further and create their own fantasy team in a fantasy league which cranks up the escapism another notch by betting on a team that exists only in the realm of statistical record keeping.
To be fair, there’s a lot about our world that encourages escapism. The growing gap between the rich and poor, environmental devastation, nuclear weaponry, xenophobia, political instability, and, for lack of a better phrase, human nature are all part of our grim reality. Perhaps we can be forgiven for getting caught up in whether the Leafs make the playoffs, who will be the next batter to hit .400 and who will be named the NBA’s MVP. As long as we realize sports is a distraction, then it has its uses and can enrich our lives. At some point though, we also need to engage in the kind of pursuits that inspire us to reflect on ourselves and to improve our world.