There was a specific point in my life when I understood that I wasn’t nearly as clever as I had previously believed myself to be. This is likely not a unique phenomenon. In fact, I’m fairly confident most of us refer to this realization as “growing up.” Instead of evolutionary metaphors, I liken it to a headache stopping, because it seems to happen suddenly, but recalling the exact moment it occurred is impossible. Nonetheless, one’s condition is greatly improved after it happens.
It’s an introduction to doubt, a term that seems to possess a negative connotation for many, but for me it’s a positive governing force. It causes introspection and prompts me to take stock of my internal inventory from time to time. This is a necessity for someone who tends to develop tunnel vision that directs them toward a specific goal at the cost of everything else on the periphery.
My latest binge of self-examination began last week when my fiancé’s grandfather died. We weren’t particularly close. I had only interacted with him a handful of times. However, as a result of his death – as untimely as one’s end can be after more than 80 years of life – I spent several days around people whom I care a great deal about while they were mourning. After a dragged out process that included three separate days for a visitation, a funeral and a burial, I began to realize that what I felt for those around me was sympathy and not empathy.
The difference between these two often confused terms is that sympathy refers to an acknowledgement of another person’s emotional state, while empathy refers to an understanding of what someone else is feeling because you have experienced it yourself. I’ve been fortunate enough to have never experienced the type of sadness felt by losing a loved one.
By now, you’re probably saying “Cool story, bro;” or asking, “So, what does this pedantic bit of pseudo-psychological self-indulgence have to do with sports?” Bear with me for just a little bit longer.
As I reflected on my lack of experience with death, I came upon a pathetic realization that the losses to which I was most familiar with had to do with sports. In fact, I was certain that I had probably even used the term “heart-breaking loss” before to describe the outcome of a game. Such an exaggerated description was rendered suddenly disgusting.
All around me was real pain and genuine agony, and the only way I could relate to it was through a role that I portray as a sports fan. It was quite possibly the least authentic moment of my life, and it prompted questions in me about what I was doing, to what was I contributing with my existence, and if I was comfortable in the direction that I was heading.
Not helping matters was a recent issue of The New Yorker, in which an excerpt from Here and Now: Letters (2008–2011), a book of correspondence between the authors Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee, was published. The portion that the magazine shares with its readers is a communication between the two revolving around watching sports and participating in competition.
The letters, dressed in pretension and antiquated formalities, use multiple-syllable words as though they were the feathers of a peacock. Worse than the grandiose style is the ulterior motivation behind the format being used. Through the letters, the authors seem to be using each other as literary devices for the sake of communicating ideas in a casual environment that doesn’t require proof. This leads to more than one instance in which the correspondence reads more like the ramblings of a philosopher hobo than well-articulated thoughts.
However, Auster and Coetzee are the type of writers whose understanding of motivations and impulses allows even their most banal conversations to produce points of interest. Nonetheless, it seems that even these giants of the literary world couldn’t quite explain the appeal of sports to an obsessed spectator.
I concede, it is a waste of time. I have an experience (a secondhand experience), but it does me no good that I can detect. I learn nothing. I come away with nothing.
- J.M. Coetzee to Paul Auster.
I agree with you that it is a useless activity, an utter waste of time. And yet how many hours of my life have I wasted in precisely this way, how many afternoons have I squandered just as you did on December 28th? The total count is no doubt appalling, and merely to think about it fills me with embarrassment.
- Paul Auster to J.M. Coetzee.
The piece served to amplify my questions. How do I reconcile the hours spent obsessing over sports with an awareness, not only of the vicarious relationship to the athletes that they watch, but also the amount of time spent on an endeavor that’s at best distracting, and at worst, a complete and utter waste?
I like sports. They interest me. I gain the same pleasures from watching a good game as others might looking at a piece of fine art, seeing a film, reading a novel or listening to a piece of music. It can be emotional. It can be intellectual. From time to time, things can happen in sports culture that cause reflection and prompt growth in me and others. However, I’m aware that for the most part, sports represent a worthless endeavor. They’re an escape and a distraction.
This realization hits hardest when I get home from a long day of reading, thinking and writing about sports, when I feel accomplished in the ideas that I formulated and expressed. It’s at these moments that I’ll read an investigative report that reveals some form of corruption or social injustice that affects thousands of people in the real world, and it makes me feel like an immense piece of dump, completely uncomfortable in the understanding of how meaningless sports are. While others write about wars being waged over democracy, the “most important” story in sports was about a college kid’s fake girlfriend.
But then, the next day, the San Francisco Giants will be scheduled to play, or the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens will be completing a home and home series, or the Miami Heat will be getting set to destroy the opposition, or the Denver Broncos will be visiting Indianapolis to play the Colts, and such things seem important once again.
Coetzee supposes that “the residue of … juvenile fantasy … fuels adult attachment to sport,” but I see little in common with how I consumed sports as a child and how I do it now. All of the delusions I held to be true in the past have since been crushed, I understand appeals to a higher being to allow my team to win are futile, I no longer suppose any athlete to be a hero and I comprehend the role that randomization and probability play in the outcome … but I keep coming back and placing undue importance on a meaningless exercise.
Adding to this for me personally is that I now make my living writing about sports. I’m not only a consumer, I’m also a producer and retailer. In fact, I have my hands in almost every aspect of the sports supply chain. If sports are the rummage that they suddenly seem, I am complicit in multiple aspects of its wasteful proliferation.
I remember having similar feelings about a year ago. A couple of years prior to that, I had left a position with a communications consultancy group that specialized in political affairs, to write about baseball. In my mind, it was something of an experiment: Would this be something that could make me happy? Eventually, circumstances arose that would make writing about sports less experimental and more of a career, and I wasn’t exactly sure of how I felt about that.
It all seemed so unimportant, but at the same time I loved it. And it was difficult to reconcile those two things. I was reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre’s example of bad faith, wherein a café waiter whose actions, which are described as being a little too “waiteresque,” reveal that he is only acting as a waiter. He is aware that he is more, but he consciously deceives himself in order to function.
The importance that I placed on sports seemed like a deception, but it was one that I wilfully and consciously embraced, not only for the sake of employment, but also my own personal amusement. So, I asked a sports writer for whom I have the utmost respect, how he dealt with the meaningless of what we did. He gave me honest and valuable advice.
Just about every morning after a work night I think about the insignificance of what I do and the number of times I have transcribed the same quotes and written the same story over the years. That feeling usually lasts until the next night’s game, and gradually, I realize how fortunate I am to have this as my career.
But that’s just me. You don’t sound like your pangs about the horrible unimportance of sports keep you awake at night. Or maybe they do. Only you can say how much that bothers you. I can’t suggest short cuts, but I’m a great believer in following your instincts, and in making sure you recognize the need to create new challenges for yourself, whether within, outside or beyond your current job. Long ago, I discovered how important it is to fend off boredom and complacency by forcing myself to do something a little scary now and then.
I read these words again, now, and I realize that just as sports are as important as we decide, they’re also as unimportant as we decide. The difficulties I might have with the significance of sports, in what I do as a fan and a writer, aren’t about sports as much as they are about me.
Dismissing our fascination as only a distraction is a decision that ignores what could be and dismisses the value of shifting focus. I touched on it earlier, but sports are every bit as capable as art in its ability to alter our path and prompt growth. It can invite introspection and give us insight as a metaphor for things that have an impact on reality. It can inspire, and it can contribute to empathy. It can help us understand and reach new ideas. Losing oneself in a meaningless pursuit isn’t necessarily meaningless. There’s value to distraction in that it can contribute to a clearer focus.
As part of the sports supply chain, I have an opportunity to present it in this fashion. The outcomes of individual games or events may not be all that important, but our challenge is to justify the amount of time and energy we spend in the pursuit of rooting for a team by applying the lessons we learn from games to a real and genuine life, lived with a renewed vigor thanks to the outlet that sports are capable of providing.
Most importantly, it’s fun. At least most of the time, it makes us happy. Enjoying a reprieve from all of the horrible things in the world isn’t a bad thing, especially if it grants us the energy in both mind and body to fight against the things we’d sooner forget. If I can help readers do that, I should feel honored. If I can do it for myself, I should feel capable of fulfilling that duty.
At the beginning of this hopefully helpful bit of self-indulgence, I suggested that realization is synonymous with growing up. Perhaps realizing the capabilities of sports as a form of high art on an ever changing stage, a necessary distraction from our struggles, and a source for personal renewal might result in a more grown up sports fan. A fanatico, maybe?