The Meaning of Sports
What is the meaning of sports? Why do they mean so much to us?
Why do you and I invest so much time, money and emotional energy in following them?
These are some of the questions Michael Mandelbaum attempts to answer in his book, ‘The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do.’
Mandelbaum’s publication is divided into four chapters, three of which devote themselves to each of the team sports that dominate the American hemisphere. The first chapter deals exclusively with the questions outlined at the beginning of this article.
I have attempted to present a synopsis of this segment of this work.
According to Mandelbaum, baseball, basketball and football are modern creations.
Team sports have become popular as childhoods have grown lengthier in the modern age. Children no longer help out in farms and at work and thus have more leisure time than earlier. Childhood is now the most enjoyable phase of an individual’s life and it is nostalgia for a pleasant, carefree time of life that sustains interest in games into adult lives.
Schools have taken over from hearth and home when it comes to teaching skills that need to be used in the workforce. It is also the institution where organized games are first encountered.
The growth of American cities are crucial in the rise of team sports.
The transport revolution made these sports a national phenomenon. This also led to a series of similar formats and uniform standards given expectations of similar quality.
Sports and Organized Religion
Mandelbaum compares sports to organized religion.
Because they share the following features:
- They address needs of the spirit and psyche rather than those of the flesh.
- They don’t bear directly on basic needs namely food and shelter.
- They are outside the working world.
- They are a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life, models of coherence and clarity and have heroic examples to admire and emulate.
Drama and Coherence
Sport is a way of ‘disporting’ i.e. diverting oneself.
Human being need to be diverted from the wears and cares of modern life.
We seek diversion in staged drama.
Drama is simply tension and its release, that is, uncertainty ultimately relieved by a definite conclusion.
Sports provide audiences compelling drama.
Outcomes are unknown—for both individual games and the season.
Team sports are epics. Their protagonists overcome a series of challenges to meet their ultimate goals.
Coherence is another basic human need.
All cultures seek order and intelligibility.
Team sports is a low or “mass” form of art accessible to the majority of society. They are supremely coherent. They provide a haven from the vagaries of modern life.
Games are models of coherence.
They are transparent and they are definitive.
Hence, their appeal.
Sports and Hollywood
Team sports have evolved much like Hollywood.
At first, the major production companies were all-powerful. They decided which movies were to be made and who would feature in them.
Now, it is the actors who are arbitrators. They rule tinsel town and command astronomical fees.
Similarly, team owners were omnipotent—at first. But now, players rule the roost and decide which sides they turn out for.
Labor in movies and sports cannot be readily replaced. The best performers enjoy enormous leverage. The public pays to watch them.
Sports stars, unlike movie stars, are real and spontaneous. Sports supplies heroes.
Heroes are objects of admiration and emulation. They can be exceptions or exemplars. The latter embody virtues that everyone can aspire to and everybody can practice.
Sports stars are both.
Extraordinary mortals yet role models.
They display diligence and performance under pressure.
These are qualities much suited to the modern world. Who wouldn’t want to be described as diligent and yet graceful under fire?
Sports stars, however, possess a narrow range of skills. They are specialists—outstanding ones.
Equality and Competition in Sports
America is a democratic country.
Costumes (uniforms) worn by participants reflect its social egalitarianism. They express equality.
Team sports also express the principle of merit.
No side begins with an advantage. The score is always 0-0 at the start.
Preference is for achieved status.
Team sports is a division of labour.
It has two main parts: Specialization and Interdependence.
No player can win a game singlehandedly. Each team needs to cooperate within themselves.
Each game and each series also embody the opposite principle: Competition.
This is a parallel to modern life.
Everyone who works in an office or factory is a part of a team. These teams compete with other teams to survive and prosper in the marketplace.
Rule of Law
Rules are overridingly important in sports.
Rules, like laws, have three main properties:
- Universality: they apply equally to all players and citizens.
- Transparency: they are known to all.
- Legitimacy: they are accepted as binding.
Referees and umpires are the equivalent of judges.
Clarity and simplicity of rules in these three sports distinguish them from individual sports such as diving, gymnastics, figure skating or even boxing. There is very little discretion applied by officials.
Questioning and protesting an official’s decision is actively discouraged. Players can be removed from games if they are felt to have transgressed a certain boundary.
The most serious attack on the integrity of the game is not when an individual or a team tries too hard to win but when a player or group of players deliberately set out to lose.
When a contest is ‘fixed’, its outcome pre-decided, it is no longer a game. Cheating is thus the ultimate sin. This is the reason why doping in athletes is met with virulent condemnation.
Equality and Merit
Equality of opportunity and merit are deeply ingrained in North Americans.
The US is more deeply committed to ensuring the wherewithal needed to take advantage of opportunities.
The amateur draft and salary cap are the mechanisms used in professional leagues to restrict the role of the free market and make teams more evenly matched on the field.
European societies, on the other hand, are more committed to equality of results i.e., draws or ties are more common in games like soccer, cricket and rugby.
Integration and Division
Overseas, identification with teams has a polarising effect.
You support one side and rail against the other.
Team sports reflect and aggravate social and political divisions.
Not so, in the States.
They are both sources of integration and division.
They promote social solidarity.
American team sports do not have international competitions. They are self-contained.
These games are barely played elsewhere.
There is very rarely violence visited on team competitions. If fights break out, they occur over high school games.
Geographic mobility is a part of an American’s life.
He or she will move for college education and jobs—several times in their lives.
So too sportspersons.
High school teams may have co-located players.
But colleges and professional sides draw upon persons from all over, even overseas.
Professional sports are also melting pots for various ethnic groups, much like the larger cities.
Sports is thus a microcosm of cosmopolitan America.
The above are similes and metaphors for why sports is so important to sports lovers and what it actually means to all of us. Some metaphors could apply to other societies as well. It would be interesting to compare the reasons why sports in gaining traction in India as an industry to its evolution in the States. The proliferation of leagues in multiple sports as vehicles to promote them and provide means of livelihood to many is a recent phenomenon. Are there more parallels than differences?
Some metaphors may resonate with you more than others. Some of them might make you think. Aloud.
I know it certainly struck a chord with me and opened my eyes as to how and why sports can be a way of uniting rather than dividing. Sports recognizes no class barriers—in theory.
I hope you enjoy reading this piece as much as I did Mandelbaum’s chapter. If you don’t, blame me and not Mandelbaum!