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!
Usain Bolt is a freak of nature.
Usain Bolt is a force of nature.
The Jamaican claimed his 11th World Championship gold in four appearances in the 4 X 100m relay in his trademarked style.
Is there a greater sprinter in the history of the sport? More dominant, bigger, cleaner?
He was expected to be given a run for his money by his resurgent American rival, Justin Gatlin.
Just one-hundredth of a second separated the two in the 100 metres.
But the 200 was all Usain. It’s his favourite event and we all saw why.
The Bird’s Nest had seen the eagle land and his name was Bolt.
“People pretty much counted me out this season. They said, ‘He’s not going to make it. That’s it for him.’ I came out and proved you can never count Usain Bolt out. I’m a champion, and I’ll show up when it matters.”
It took a runaway Segway steered by an errant cameraman to trip this phenomenon.
What will it take to beat Bolt?
You can’t catch up with him, that’s for sure.
“What will it take? It will take staying in front. That’s what it’s going to take.”
And to think that this is his worst year yet.
Gatlin was hoping for redemption for his fall from grace, having been banned for doping.
It was and it wasn’t. The better man won.
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
However, the paying public or the online denizens would not have anything of it. There was no substance behind the portrayal of Gatlin as the ‘villain’ of the showpiece.
The American had paid for his folly. And he was back to prove that he could run—clean—and win.
Bolt spoke of retiring after the Rio Olympics next year.
The newly crowned IAAF chief, Sebastian Coe, was quick to lament the announcement.
“I do sort of feel that I’m in sort of 1960s, 1970s time warp. It’s the kind of conversation that was probably taking place in boxing at that time as to what happens after Muhammad Ali retires. Well, after Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler happens. After Muhammad Ali, (Thomas) Hearns happen, Sugar Ray Leonard, (Floyd) Mayweather. It happens.Yes, what we have to concede, and what I believe is that I don’t think any athlete, any sportsman or woman since Muhammad Ali has captured the public imagination and propelled their sport as quickly and as far as Usain Bolt has. The Usain Bolts of this world will not come along on a conveyor belt . We do need to make sure people understand we have extraordinary talent, which we’ve witnessed in Beijing. We shouldn’t be concerned because we have a sport that is adorned by some of the most outrageously superhuman, talented people in any sport. Our challenge is to make sure the public know there are other athletes in out sport.”
Spare a thought for Gatlin, the vilified.
His lack of contrition is held against him as against Bolt’s lack of arrogance.
Gatlin’s agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, says:
“When people say he never apologised, I say: ‘You haven’t done your homework.’ And the IAAF, who know this, have never come out and said anything, which I am very sad about. Justin has apologised. What is he supposed to do, go to every country and say sorry?”
I have always said to Usada and Wada: ‘Come and test us, day or night’. That’s all we can do, make ourselves available and, if that’s not good enough for people, that’s just the world we live in.
In the last few years Justin has focused on getting his weight right and getting his technique on where it needed to be and starting to run more efficiently. We don’t know with certainty anyone, who hasn’t tested positive, is not doing anything. The good thing about our testing is that it does catch people. Justin Gatlin did get caught doping. That is a fact. So we do catch people and I am happy about that.”
Justin is very charming, personable and bright. But at some point you have to back away. He said: ‘I can’t be beat down by this every single day. I came here to run, this is not fun for me.’ So I told him: ‘If anyone is going to continue to talk about the past, let’s not talk to them.’”
Gatlin admits he was a drug cheat but he’s also a human being:
“Obviously I am the most criticised athlete in track and field but at the end of the day I am a runner and that’s all I can be.”
Gatlin has now gone public about his multiple apologies in the past for his mistakes.
In one of his letters addressed to IAAF’s then president, Lamine Diack, and his senior vice-president, Sergey Bubka, he wrote:
“I am sincerely remorseful and it continues to be my mission to be a positive role model mentoring to athletes to avoid the dangers and public and personal humiliation of doping. And the harm it brings to the sport of athletics.”
I have cooperated fully with the United States federal investigation to clean up our sport of track and field working towards it becoming drug free.”
Bolt may be clean but he’s hardly your typical sprinter.
He’s blessed with twitch fibres much like other sprinters but he’s also a huge man. His large strides lend him an advantage that’s hard to overcome once he hits his paces.
He’s no lumbering mountain man; he’s the biggest, fastest man on the planet.
He’s a freak of nature. And it’s more than likely that it will need another anomalous human being to break his existing records.
Is that possible? Or is it possible, even feasible, that gene therapy and its mutations are the way forward in games that require superhuman efforts to be ‘Higher, Faster, Stronger’?
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.
What he said:
“And you know what, if that happens, I’ll be a minister!”
Bogdan Obradovic jokes that Novak Djokovic is so popular in Serbia that he could easily be President.
“There is a joke in Serbia. Actually, it’s not a joke. It’s a fact. Ask any man, woman or kid and they will tell you Novak must be the president. Even the president will say, ‘OK, I am ready to vacate my chair for Novak’.”
The non-playing captain of his country’s Davis Cup team is in Bangalore where India play them for a spot in the World Group.
It was in 2001 at the US Open that Obradovic predicted (to a Serbian reporter) that Djokovic would be World No. 1 someday and win the American title.
“I told him that we have one kid back home and he is going to be No. 1 and win the singles title at the US Open one day. That interview was broadcast on Serbian national television. Many people laughed at me. Today, they smile.
You know Novak was junior World No. 1 at 14. He won the European championships. Now you may wonder how a European champion can be called a world champion. Let me tell you. It’s a funny story. Actually, even Americans and Canadians and Australians used to play in the European championships. It’s funny, I know. So, to me, Novak was the No. 1 junior in the world.”
On Djokovic’s elasticity:
“The good thing was that he was naturally elastic. So we developed an exercise regimen and made sure we didn’t destroy that aspect of his body. Look, most tennis players are strong and powerful. But they are not agile. They don’t possess elastic energy. This is not American Football or rugby. In tennis, you need to have elastic energy. By using your elastic energy, you tend to spend less energy during matches. This helps you recover faster. No one knows your tank capacity; how much gasoline you have. I can tell you Novak spends less energy than any other player on the Tour. That’s why is so fit. That’s why he is No. 1.”
What he really meant:
“A minister ministers and that’s what I’ll do. After all, haven’t I been ministering to him for years?”
What he definitely didn’t:
“Machiavellian, ain’t I?”