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Philosophy and Sport
If Life is Finite, Why am I Watching this Damn Game?
Kenneth Shouler discusses the aesthetics of sports and the nature of choices.
For baseball fans, the scene may never be equalled for sheer historic value. It was the All-Star Game at Fenway Park in Boston, 1999. A new millennium would begin a few months later and several dozen members of Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team were arrayed across the diamond. Living legends such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Bob Feller, Frank Robinson and Warren Spahn, even Roger Clemens and Rickey Henderson – all stood and waved to fans, drinking in the deafening applause of several generations of spectators. The decibel level rose still further as Ted Williams was driven in from the bullpen on a golf cart, and announced as the “greatest hitter that ever lived.” The moment was close enough to perfection that even a New York Yankee enthusiast like myself could overlook the slighting of Babe Ruth in the hometown superlatives used to describe Williams.
More than 100 million people around the world watched this gathering. I was fortunate to be one of the panelists whom Major League Baseball chose to pick the 100 members of the All-Century Team, and I have kept tapes of the event. Ted Williams has since passed away, and it is doubtful that such a combination of young and old immortals gathered in one place, for one evening, will ever occur again.
But with so much else to do in life, and with each of our personal time clocks ticking a finite number of ticks, why should anyone spend hours on a sporting event which is ultimately trivial? Why take part in thirty minutes of pre-game sentiment or the lackluster three-hour All-Star Game that followed? Several months later millions more fans would shift to the sporting event du jour, watching football, basketball or hockey or all three. For those seeking perennial distractions, sport offers up a smorgasbord. To participate in any of these games professionally, you need to give your sport about half your life. To be a spectator, you need to sacrifice more time than that.
Why we give so much of our attention to sports is just one of the relevant questions. Another is more vexing: can the expenditure of time ever be justified?
While philosophy pays attention to ‘issues’ in sports – issues involving cheating, competition, fairness, sportsmanship, to mention just a few – one might find many of these same concerns rearing their heads in business ethics. What is peculiar to sports is the play element. Sports are essentially invented competitions whose outcome has little bearing on the rest of our lives. By noontime on the day after the Superbowl, who, besides gamblers, is even affected by who won or lost?
To be sure, sports are fleeting diversions. But unlike other diversions – visual arts, drama, and opera, to mention just a few that draw interest from aesthetics – sport has until very recently received short shrift from Western philosophy. Paul Weiss’ explanation in Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry (1969) is that sport has, since the time of Aristotle, been deemed common or vulgar.
On one level of course, this academic neglect hardly matters to the fan. The attraction of it all is clear: it’s unbridled fun. When the fan is in the ‘rooting moment’, the expenditure of time is the last thing on his mind. Issues of meaning are not paramount. Fandom, after all, is not intrinsically rational or self-examining. Cleveland Brown fans dress up like dogs, in a kind of weekly celebration of Halloween. Other fans pursue options less creative perhaps but just as free, watching an entire January contest in northeastern temperatures with team colors smeared across their faces and bare chests. Even decades ago – the last time the New York Knicks were a perennial contender – a spectator named Dancing Harry, bedecked in bell-bottoms as big as lamp shades, and an Afro that his floppy hat could never contain, would shimmy in a kind of voodoo hex near the opponent’s bench to jinx the visiting teams in Madison Square Garden. When the Lakers came to town, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor would cast a numb stare at Harry’s act. To be sure, sports has always offered up a kind of theater without walls – with fans blurring the boundaries between participant and viewer and becoming integral parts of the performance.
The word ‘fan’ is short for ‘fanatic’, and one of the greatest attractions of being a fan of some team is that the world of deadlines, plummeting stocks, bills, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune recedes in importance, if only for a few hours. Add those hours across days and weeks and seasons and the aggregate time could equal a two-month hiatus from the cares of life.
On a deeper level, sports can address a need for meaning, filling the bill as a kind of secular religion. With sports, the observer is in a sense united with a player or team outside of himself. The Latin root of the word ‘religion’, religio, means ‘to tie fast’ or ‘to be bound to’. While one can watch a sporting event without being bound to one team or another, indifference among spectators is that rarest of exceptions. It is beyond dispute that most fans spend more time in a week following their team than they do in month at religious observances. The bond between God and believer is long-term, founded on devotion and, for many, a desire for future insurance. But the bond between team and fan is immediate, with constant emotional payoffs and debits. A neutral observer with no vested interest in the outcome might find a game – even between faraway teams whose players are unknown to her – altogether satisfying for its competition, aesthetic appeal, or its fanfare. But without an emotional participation in the fortunes of one team or another, it’s unlikely that such a person would have the sustained devotion of the dyed-in-the-wool fan.
To take the sports plunge with abandon is to risk losing oneself in the fortunes of one’s team, not to mention the lives of all its members, in bleacher camaraderie, in endless discussions of benumbing trivia and rehashed minutiae with other fans. Again, why go through with all of it?
One ‘answer’ would be “why not?” Paul Weiss’ insight about sports being regarded as common won’t go away. Notice how the question about the depth of spectator’s devotion doesn’t arise in the same way with the arts. Do people press the devotee of opera or classical music about why he spends so much time with his love? Does the visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art incur criticism for repeatedly returning to view the permanent Egyptian collection? Probably not. So there may be a kind of high-culture/lowculture distinction that fuels the indifference to – and, for many – disdain for and loathing of sports. But if this common/uncommon distinction is all that lies behind it, then the reason for philosophy’s neglect of sport (until the last halfcentury) is surely mistaken. For is there anything common about Barry Bonds’ 480-foot bomb – which caromed off a seat, past the runway in the third tier of Yankee Stadium last summer – that makes it inferior to an aria being sung at the Lincoln Center, five miles to the south? The aesthetics of Bonds’ achievement – the very precision of his swing and its singular power – seem every bit as spectacular, and certainly more rare, than the beautiful intonations of the aria.
One needn’t be a professional philosopher to raise the question of what counts as meaningful or worthwhile. Most people who raise questions of what is meaningful in a life are not professional philosophers. But it might help to at least be philosophically inclined to probe whether it is meaningful or useful in some way to spend one’s time following a team.
We all have choices. To answer the question I posed in the title, I might be watching this damned game because it’s the fifth game of the World Series and I’ve been watching the World Series since 1964, when my father needled me, actually predicting a Ken Boyer grand slam off Al Downing in Game Four. The blow, which just cleared the 296-foot marker in leftfield in Yankee Stadium, turned the Series in the Cardinals favor and they beat the Yankees in seven games. Or I may watch the game because it promises to be an exciting, hardfought contest. But I will probably skip Saturday fishing shows and X-Game competitions because, while they are undeniably skillful and interesting, there are usually several better ways to spend my time and one cannot be an unrepentant spectator, watching the passing parade all the time. As Woody Allen said to a gathering of stoners watching films in Annie Hall, it’s important to make an effort in life. When the sixth game of the Series comes up, I will have another decision to make: the Public Broadcasting channel is showing the history of New York by Ric Burns at the same time. I have seen several episodes of the five-part series and I would like to see this one, which covers the incredible human story of the construction of the Empire State Building.
If I choose to watch Burns’ history, I will also be making a decision that is not without its difficulties. After all, there are always other options. Whatever we choose to do, our choices always say something about what we find meaningful. What is meaningful is, after all, influenced by the various subjective elements – tastes, desires and likes – that each of us brings to the decision. So if I watch the game, it will because I like it and that makes it a meaningful choice for me, at least some of the time. Whether we choose sports or something else, we face our own finitude, the fact that the clock is counting down. Finitude is a constant, a background condition of our lives, whether we’re thinking of sports or philosophy or anything else.
© KENNETH SHOULER 2003
Kenneth Shouler teaches logic at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. He is writing on sports for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He is the author of The Major League Baseball Book of Fabulous Facts and Awesome Trivia (HarperCollins) and The Real 100 Best Baseball Players of All-Time and Why (Addax Publishing).