… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.
~Juvenal, Satire X (circa 100 c.e.)
In this time of incredible political turmoil, what has kept me sane? Professional sports, that’s what. What is the deal with humans and sports? Why do we seem so compulsorily drawn toward games and competition? And why are we so enamored with watching others play?
As my mind has clamored for distraction, these questions and more have been rattling around in my mind for the last couple weeks. In late October, as luck would have it, I happened to be in Cleveland for opening night of the Cavaliers season and the presentation of their championship rings while just across the street, Game 1 of the World Series was being played. For some reason, I felt the need to be in the arena and watch the ring ceremony. I wanted to be downtown watching the Indians shut out the Cubs with my Cleveland brethren. It was the best night I have ever had in downtown Cleveland. The city was electric and I, too, was caught up in the revery. My skin shivered and my eyes welled up with tears as I watched the pyrotechnics, the highlights, and the speeches before the basketball game. Then my face hurt form smiling and my hand stung from slapping more high-fives than I ever imagined possible when the baseball game ended. But why? Why would I experience such a wide and deep range of emotions around watching a bunch of grown men, that I don’t know, play a game? How did thousands of strangers turn into my best friends for a few short moments? And why, for that night, did nothing else matter beyond all the winning?
There’s something magical about sports. Be it an Olympic gymnastics performance, a high school football game, or a World Cup soccer match, the individuals playing in and even those witnessing the competition, be it in person or on television, are participating in a unique event. Now, with televisions everywhere and countless satellites orbiting our planet, millions upon millions of people are able to watch a single game or performance at the same time from anywhere in the world. That’s a whole lotta energy directed toward one very specific event. One billion people tuned in to watch the 2014 FIFA World Cup final match.
1 BILLION PEOPLE!!!!!!
A billion people, giving focused attention, awaiting the outcome of a momentary mystery? That’s some serious power. Is there anything else on Earth that allows for that kind of unified focus? I don’t believe so.
So what of it?
Why does my 93 year old grandfather still put on his red and white Nebraska gear every Saturday in autumn to cheer on his beloved Cornhuskers? Why do fights break out in the parking lot before Giants and Dodgers games? Why did 1.3 million people flood the streets of Cleveland for the Cavaliers championship parade? Why was Andrés Escobar, the goalkeeper for the Columbian World Cup team, murdered after accidentally scoring for the US team on his own goal? Why would something as silly as a game cause so much elation? Why would it cause so much hate and despair?
Is this fanaticism the modern genetic translation of our tribal roots? Is it a deep, innate need to feel like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves? Does it compel us to feel as though we’re sacrificing something for that collective? Perhaps. The fact still remains that it’s just a game.
Correct me if I’m off on this one, but it seems that playing is a universally human characteristic. Children grow up playing as often as they possibly can, with the uncanny ability to turn most anything into a game. A couple of sticks can turn little kids into swashbuckling pirates. A snow mound can become a fortress. A towel draped over the shoulders turns anyone into a superhero. I’d venture to say that most people keep playing games, on some level, well into their elderly years. It’s a great way for seniors to stay sharp. One of the single greatest ways to stave off Alzheimers and dementia is to play games like dominoes, gin or word puzzles. Playing, besides being fun, has the ability to save and perhaps even heal our minds? Amazing! But still, why the compulsion?
In the past, tribal identity was a given. Many disparate clans over large land masses clung together out of necessity. The tribe was everything and it was everyone’s responsibility to see to the sustainability and longevity of the tribe. Now, it seems, that tribal identity is still a subconscious human necessity and it’s almost as if our modern age has forced us to manufacture ties and identities. When was the last time you had a conversation your neighbors? Have you ever shaken hands with the members of your local city council? I sure haven’t. My tribe consists of a bio-hacker in Helsinki, a cold enthusiast in Holland, and a professional poker players in Los Angeles. This diaspora, apparently, is a natural byproduct of the information age. We, as humans, are more connected than at any point in our brief history. Proximity no longer determines tribal identity. An obsession with 1950’s American kitchen appliances, a love of Stoic philosophy or even an affinity for hairless mole rats are just as likely, if not more so, to determine your tribe now as is the location of your birth. We, as humans, need to feel like we belong to something.
For better or worse, sports gives us that feeling of belonging. Take two people diametrically opposed in their everyday lives and beliefs; for example, an Alt-Right neo fascist and a Jewish ACLU lawyer. If they’re both wearing scarlet and gray in a dive bar in Ann Arbor and watching Ohio State play Michigan on the last Saturday in November, I promise these two will be best friends for three hours. That suspension of philosophical allegiance is fascinating. It’s as if the fleeting presence and immediacy of sporting events have the ability to trump otherwise deeply entrenched worldviews. These two individuals may very well go back to despising one another’s politics and heritage when the game is over, but for the briefest of times, they forged an alliance without debate or compromise. A Buckeye fan is a Buckeye fan and that’s that.
Maybe professional sports are just “bread and circuses.” Maybe they are just distractions from issues that are far more deserving of our attention. However, in a time when our nation is fractured by opposing ideologies and controversial figureheads, I welcome this distraction as an example of how we can still come together to form allegiances and find common understanding. We need as many symbols of unity as we can find and highlight these commonalities. Every big thing is made up of many small things. If something as trivial as games can bring us together, what other seeds of mutual respect lay beyond the veil of opposition and competition?