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Play Without Me

I’ve spent a good chunk of the past day and a half or so in a hotel room while my wife attends a conference.  This has afforded me the delightful privilege of uninterrupted time for catching up on a bit of reading, napping, going for short walks.  And for watching sports.

I love sports.  I have always loved sports, whether this meant playing or watching.  As with many Canadian kids, when I was younger it was mostly about hockey, but I could watch pretty much anything—football, basketball, skiing, tennis, track and field….  Even baseball, if I was particularly desperate.  Not curling or golf, though.  Never those.  And not boxing (we had mercifully not yet been presented with the disgusting abomination that is UFC at that point).  Even as a child, I understood that one must have standards. Later, I would become a bit more discriminating.  I would learn to differentiate between real football and the American version characterized by 6 second spurts of frantic activity, followed by long periods of advertising and players standing around while important looking people with headsets on the sidelines tried to decide what next to do.  I would gradually learn to be a bit more discerning with my viewing habits.

Yes, I have always loved sports.  But I have also, for quite some time, felt uncomfortably conflicted by my love of sports.   Among other things, I am uneasy about how my fascination with professional sports feeds our culture of celebrity.  As I wandered around the hotel this weekend, it seemed that I was never more than four strides away from a giant television screen with some sort of sporting event on it.  During conversations at meals, when people who have little in common grope around for something safe to speak about, talk would often turn to sport.  What do you think of ____?  Did you see ____?  Isn’t ____ amazing?  It’s a little odd, isn’t it, that we reflexively speak not of meaningful or significant things or sad and unjust things, but of the exploits of young multi-millionaires who have managed to turn recreation into occupation?  It’s a little sad, isn’t it, that we allow our identities to constrict in such ways?

It’s January 2014.  I look out on the sporting horizon and I see a number of spectacles looming. There a number of outdoor NHL games.  Last night, for example, a hockey game was played in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA!  There will be others in January as well, each accompanied by rock concerts, and all the pomp and ceremony that comes along with it.  And in a few weeks, of course, we have the Super Bowl—this most quintessentially American day-long spectacle of violence and conquest and sex and outlandish entertainment and heroic mythology.

On a larger scale, in February there are the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia—this event that seems increasingly to be Vladimir Putin’s personal (revoltingly expensive, ego-driven) plaything engineered to boost his vision of the greatness of Russia on the global stage.  And finally, of course, we have biggest sporting event in the world, the World Cup of soccer which will be held in Brazil this summer.

In each case, there are truly staggering, take-your-breath-away, make-your-head-spin sums of money being spent on these tiny slices of time and space.  This is particularly so in the case of Sochi 2014 and the World Cup in Brazil. In both cases, ordinary people have long been protesting the expenditure of such sums while Russians and Brazilians continue to live in poverty, while education and healthcare spending languishes, while corporate greed and political corruption continue virtually unabated.  In both cases there are serious security concerns because ordinary people—people who struggle to put food on the table every day, people who stand and wait for buses, who try to keep their kids safe and help them succeed, people who have no power and very little influence—are fed up with the rich and the powerful deciding that sport and spectacle are more important than human lives and basic human rights.

It’s quite easy to cast blame.  Blame the rich.  Blame the powerful.  Blame the greedy corrupt people who wear suits and sit in fancy luxury boxes drinking expensive drinks and spending more on a night out than an ordinary Russian or Brazilian will spend on entertainment in a year.  Or a decade.  Or a lifetime.  But the supply would not exist without the demand.  If people like me didn’t love our sport, weren’t glued to our TVs whenever the fat cats dangled another juicy morsel in front of us, these problems wouldn’t exist.  There’s no getting around the fact that big sport is the (corrupt, greedy, overpriced) spectacle that it is because we make it so.

Yes, I love sports.  But I am starting to wonder if I need to love sports differently.

Perhaps rather than scrambling to find a screen during Sochi 2014 or the World Cup in Brazil, my time would be better spent shooting a basketball with my son, or kicking a ball with my daughter, or attending swim meets and badminton tournaments.  Perhaps it would be better to spend whatever sums of money I currently (knowingly or unknowingly) devote to propping up the sports empire on human rights campaigns or relief and development organizations. Perhaps it would be better to look at the toxic corporate/political spectacle that is modern sport, and simply say, “You go ahead  and play without me.  There are better things for me to do.”

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    Great post!, man. and if I may, let me carry this ball a little further down the field, so to speak :)
    The fanatical-mania spirit that possesses those who are vulnerable among us, drives and compels them into the textbook phenomena(abomination?) of ‘Hero Worship’ of sports figures/teams and can extend to include even movie/music celebrities and politicians. Those who succumb to such seducing spirits are then open to easy and blatant manipulation by those powers who would profit financially and/or politically from our weakness and ignorance. Other examples would include the well worn spirit of Nationalism and ethnic ‘pride’, not to mention the various spirits that exploit religion and religious beliefs as a means of gain/control. In truth, I believe we are or should be locked in Spiritual warfare with the unseen/unnoticed dark forces embedded within our culture that would divert us from seeking the Kingdom of God within.

    January 26, 2014
    • Yup, the phenomenon is certainly not restricted to the domain of sports. We live in a culture where a spoiled, narcissistic teenager getting arrested for being high/drunk in Florida gets more headlines (or at least dominates more of our collective attention) than a humanitarian crisis in Syria (or pick your other significant real-world event). It truly beggars the imagination.

      January 27, 2014
      • mike #

        January 27, 2014
      • Depressing… Yet not at all surprising.

        January 27, 2014
  2. Keturah #

    Excellent post. I left sports long ago for many of the reasons you state. It’s most often men flashing drinks and money, and flaunting an unattainable, affluent regarious, ostentatious lifestyle. Not only that, but the World Cup is used as one of the largest sex trafficking hubs in the world. It’s tragic, really.

    Growing up with brothers who played endless years of organized team sports, I’ve seen parents make their children’s Little Leauge baseball a replacement for professional sporting events. However, I have mostly fond memories of those summers spent at baseball fields. I think it’s an honest and realistic way to enjoy sports, and connect with family, people, and one’s community.

    January 27, 2014
    • Thanks, Keturah. I hadn’t even thought of the whole sex-trafficking angle, but of course you’re absolutely right. One more odious component of the spectacle.

      For me, the World Cup will definitely test my resolve and the lofty words in this post. I love soccer and will undoubtedly find it very difficult to not at least watch some of the games this summer.

      January 27, 2014
  3. My wife and I are currently wrestling with our response to the Super Bowl. We love watching our football games… but we’re not sure how much we want to support that industry any more, knowing what goes on to young children (boys and girls) in the dark streets, alleys, and corners around the stadium…

    Perhaps you’re right… maybe there is a better way to love sports… maybe it should be just enough to read the paper or the news articles AFTER the fact… and the rest of the time call up my best buds and say “Hey, want to toss the ball around?”

    January 27, 2014
    • I definitely share your sentiments, Robert, although for me it would probably be Olympic hockey and World Cup soccer. I suppose if we were going to eliminate everything from our lives that had a whiff of corruption and greed attached to it, we would be living very small lives indeed. I don’t know…

      These Olympics and the way that Putin is using them somehow seem particularly odious to me, though. Russia will apparently spend more than Beijing 2008 and 7X as much as Vancouver 2010. It’s astonishing. Same goes for the World Cup. It just seems so reckless and irresponsible to spend these sums of money while these countries each have major issues and problems that could be addressed with even a fraction of that money…

      January 27, 2014
  4. Paul Johnston #

    I agree with most of the sentiments expressed here…except your bewildering lack of love for baseball. :) Both physical and cerebral, it is the best game I have ever played.

    I think we can look closer to home if we wish to see dysfunction, through sports. Minor league hockey culture in this country should be ashamed of itself. No other country I can think of asks it’s young athletes to choose between the game and a post secondary education. Everywhere else sport and education are intrinsically tied.

    February 2, 2014
    • I actually kind of enjoyed playing baseball as a boy. Kind of like it was moderately enjoyable to try curling. But watching these sports? How indescribably tedious… :)

      There is much that is wrong with hockey culture in Canada, including what you mention here. I grew up in this culture, and am quite happy that my son prefers volleyball and soccer. We tried hockey for a few years and discovered that it had barely changed since I was his age.

      February 3, 2014

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