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.
Mandelbaum compares sports to organized religion.
Because they share the following features:
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.
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.
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.
Rules are overridingly important in sports.
Rules, like laws, have three main properties:
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 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.
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!
Shaquille O’Neal weighed in on the G.O.A.T debate and what heft he lent his words.
The former Laker said he preferred Michael “Air” Jordan to LeBron James when asked who would win a hypothetical one-on-one match-up.
His all-time favourite , however, was Dr. J aka Julius Erving.
“Mike. I think you have to go with a young Jordan every time.
It would be an interesting game. Young LeBron was more like (Lakers Hall of Famer) Magic Johnson. He was sort of like Magic with Jordan’s abilities. He liked to pass, and he liked to get it up.
But Mike was Mike. He was just special, like no one else. He always did things no one else could do, and things you couldn’t compare to anyone else. So he was special, and he’d win.”
“I’ve seen young Mike and young LeBron and I must say Dr. J is still my favourite player. A lot of people today don’t even mention his name but to me I still think he was the best. But these are questions that we’ll never know the answer to.”
And things got really interesting from thereon.
The big man went on to describe the comparison with a kung fu analogy.
“It’s a bit like if I met Bruce Lee in an alleyway. Who would win? You’ll never know. Some people say well Bruce would kick Shaq’s ass. Some people say well Shaq is two times bigger than Bruce Lee. It’s a good question, a good conversation. But we’ll never know.”
Way to go, champ.
It appears that all the training Shaq underwent with Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) star Nate Diaz has taught the hoopster some respect for jiu-jitsu and it’s Eastern variants.
What next? If his fellow players take up the sport, we can expect kung fu basketball pretty soon. Wouldn’t that be something?
Kung Fu Shaq, anybody?
It’s official. Turbans are cool. Turbans are in.
No, we’re not talking about “Turbanator” Harbhajan Singh and his much awaited return to the Indian cricket side.
We’re not even considering Navjot Singh Sidhu and his witticisms in the commentary box.
We’re ruminating on basketball and a call for action issued by US lawmakers to permit Sikhs to wear their article of faith on court.
The clothed headgear was banned under the rule that players cannot wear equipment or objects that could injure team-mates or opponents.
At the 2014 Asia Cup, Indian cagers, Amritpal Singh and Amjyot Singh, were forced to take off their turbans under the archaic law. The national side were facing Japan.
The Sikh code of conduct states:
“A Sikh is expected to keep all hair intact and the head covered. The rule of dress for every Sikh man is to wear a turban. The Sikh woman may wear a turban or elect instead to wear a kind of traditional headscarf. A woman may also wear a scarf over a turban if she so desires. A Sikh accustomed to wearing a turban feels naked without it.”
Narrow headbands are permitted by FIBA but that would hardly address the Sikh issue. Sikhs are never to cut their hair since birth. Headbands would barely begin to cover their tresses.
This is the second time US lawmakers have come down harshly on the basketball federation’s directive.
In August 2014, senators Joseph Crowley of New York and Rep. Ami Bera of California along with 22 members of Congress sought a repeal of the discriminatory policy.
This time, it’s a sum total of 39.
The turbaned community from India have not been the only victims.
Qatari women players have been prevented from wearing hijabs while representing their country.
The Maldives women’s team forfeited their games in an under-18 tourney rather than appear without traditional head coverings.
FIBA initially agreed to test out a re-framed policy for a trial period of two years.
This fresh petition seeks the status of the trial.
The Congressmen said:
“We have seen time and again that sports have the power to unite – basketball included. The sport has gained in international stature in recent decades and is increasingly popular in countries where the use of a turban is commonplace.
We urge you to amend your policies to ensure that people all around the world have an equal opportunity to play the game.”
“Sikhs participate in a wide variety of sports around the globe, and there has not been a single instance of someone being harmed or injured by a turban. Even at the amateur and professional levels, Sikhs have played sports without a problem.
For example, Sikh American Dipanjot Singh played Division I basketball at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Singh then went on to play semi-professional basketball in several leagues.”
The onerous practice raised fears that the game will die out in Punjab, the state from which most Indian Sikhs hail.
Amjyot Singh said:
“If my son wants to play basketball in the future, I will never let him get into the game.”
“People know us because of basketball. It gives us jobs and brings food to the table. The game is everything for us. But the sport will lose many talented players from Punjab if they don’t rethink this rule. The first time we were told, I felt very sad. It was like a part of body was gone… My father also played basketball and he told me to quickly finish my playing years.”
Another Punjabi hoopster, Jaspreet Singh, said:
“No one has ever been hurt because a Sikh player wore a patka, but they think we’ll hide weapons. If seniors were compelled to cut their hair to play, then it’s bad for us juniors because even we’ll have to make a decision. I’ll not cut my hair if it comes down to choosing.”
It is alarming that while sports knows no boundaries, FIBA insists on an exclusionary policy.
Basketball is a cool sport.
It’s fun, it’s dynamic and even more fast-paced than soccer or hockey.
The playing rules are simple to understand.
All you need is a ball and a hoop.
Does basketball need to cling to such a hide-bound stipulation?
There is always the possibility that officials may dismiss such petitions as not really being a Western or progressive nation’s problem. Is that truly the case? Muslims, across the world—post 9/11, have taken to sporting beards to accentuate their religious beliefs.
Can the sport and its officials ignore a pushback from Western and Westernised Muslim women reverting back to the hijaab attire? Not because they’re not educated or non-progressive but simply to display their faith with pride. Does the issue then not become one of their own?
We can wish that the world become more progressive, more ‘modern‘, more cosmopolitan. But wishes are not horses and we need to be there for the ride.
At a time, when the NBA is hell-bent on discovering new markets spelled India and China, can its parent association afford to be out of step with the times?
Turbanators are probably a non-issue. Indian Sikhs represent the country proudly in different sports—headgear intact. They can always be cited as precedent enough.
But the hijaab on court?
That’s a finer issue where hairs will always be split and thus, perhaps, the subject of further debate.
Maybe it simply boils down to is whether it’s optional or mandatory. It ought to be a personal choice. It is a personal choice. That’s empowerment, that’s choice, that’s real.
There have been a couple of tall tales in the Indian media recently.
Two of our very own boys have been selected to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA) league.
Their names: Sim Bhullar and Satnam Singh Bhamara.
One’s Canadian and the other’s from our very own Ludhiana.
Both seven footers. Giants, indeed.
Bhullar plays for Sacramento Kings.
Sacramento? Isn’t that California’s forgotten seat of governance much like Canberra is Australia’s?
Or is that Sacrament-O?
And Dallas Mavericks?
Whoever’s heard of them?
Chirp ‘Dallas‘ and all I can recall is that American soap opera telecast on Star World.
And a maverick? Isn’t that an unbranded calf or yearling? Or isn’t that Mel Gibson portraying the title role in ‘Maverick’?
How Mad Maxingly confounding!
An ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi) tells me that it’s not as perplexing as the NBA draft. I’m told they have a weighted-lottery system that favors the bottomed out—quite unlike the ‘simple‘ auctions at our Modi(l) IPL.
Sim signs on for a week or so and Satnam may never play. Yet, there’s a hoopla here like never before.
There are whispers that it’s all a marketing gimmick to target the extremely long, extremely fat tail that is the Indian market for American basketball.
Whoosh! In goes another three-pointer!
It’s said the two Singh’s can do a Yao Ming for the NBA in the sub-continent.
You’d imagine that two billion plus Indians and Chinese the majority of whom barely top the five-and-a-half foot mark would find it hard to identify with a trio of seven-foot-plus and 20-plus-shod behemoths who themselves belong to a minuscule minority not just in their nations but all across the globe.
Sporting goods marketers expect otherwise.
If the Indian cricket team had selected Baba Ramdev as the team physio, then the men in blue could have been as flexible on the field as the sadhu himself. However, his insidious influence would rub off on them and at the first signs of terror from pace bowlers, bruised batsmen would migrate to women’s cricket.
If Barack Obama were to lose the 2012 Presidential elections, he could always consider coaching the Los Angeles Lakers. “Yes, we can” would resonate with Lakers fans, too. “It’s not the economy, stupid” could do just as well.