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.”