September 12, 2006

Moving Past 'Team Sports'

Print More

Sometimes I wonder why anyone should care about team sports at all. Maybe sports don’t matter that much, in fact, maybe they matter very little. Is it truly important which team wins the Super Bowl this year — does it change the world in any important way?

So why do we care? There is a whole list of clichés to answer that question — maybe sports like football or basketball are models for the struggles of human life or maybe they represent our yearnings for heroism. But those reasons are so clichéd and full of symbolic nonsense that I don’t even know what they mean anymore.

And let’s not forget about the so-called noble and great virtues of sports and that ridiculous idea that somehow sports can make you into a great human being. Sometimes we even attach a kind of morality to sports, as if there was some kind of inherent goodness in hitting a baseball. Sports fans are rewarded for this belief with the gift of such great souls as Barry Bonds.

But I can respect team sports for another reason — as a display of human athletic potential; of raw, physical ability made into refined talent. After all, that “shallow” reason is what keeps us watching and keeps us playing. It’s not for the so-called important lessons of sports. We can learn those lessons in other ways (if you need sports to teach you life-values, you’re in trouble). Athletes are no more moral than the community at-large, and despite NCAA public relations, sports do not necessarily create model citizens. The over-romanticization of the “student-athlete” is as trite as it is unnecessary — thousands of college athletes may be “going pro in something other than sports” as the ubiquitous NCAA commercial says, but so are countless other students who work just as hard.

However, team sports still offer fun and camaraderie, and I can value them for that. If I’ll concede any deeper meaning to sports, the symbols I want are freedom and transcendence. And I think that — in our decidedly empty and non-transcendent world — those are the things that future generations are going to want to seek out, too.

But you can’t really find those kinds of things in team sports. And, as hard as it is to believe, it’s very possible that, in the long term, team sports are on the way out.

Despite our conception of “the team sport” as the standard and eternal norm of athletic competition, the reality is that almost all such sports are fairly recent inventions, developments of a certain historical era and a certain place (actually two places — England and the United

States in the Victorian Era and the Gilded Age). The values and rules of these sports (such as, soccer and baseball) are products of what the Victorians believed in; just think of the similarity between a sports team, and say, an army battalion or a factory line.

Yet, today we live in a post-industrial society, completely isolated from nature, from the past, and, increasingly, from our own daily activities. Our connection to the greater world is based around the most shallow and vacuous things. Our connection to sports is increasingly empty and false — we continue to talk about ideas like “the good of the game,” despite the fact that such values are almost entirely exhausted, if they ever really existed at all.

So it should not be surprising that more and more disaffected people have become interested in other kinds of sports — in sports like my beloved surfing, or in activities that bring us closer to nature, like rock climbing or mountaineering. Is it any wonder that thoughtful people want to go beyond the fake setup and artificial rules of typical athletic competition?

Think of a society where sports are not about sublimating our warlike instincts, but instead about seeking pure physical culture; a sports culture based around escaping the body-destroying nine-to-five world that is modern civilization. Ask any surfer what it was like the first time he or she rode a wave. Not only is the feeling the exact opposite of what it feels like to work in an office, but it is equally far from the ultimately disappointing feeling of “crushing the opposition” on the field. But sports do indeed mirror our society, and unfortunately our society is too often based around a dysfunctional acceptance of ultimately stupid and wasteful aggression. The sports which our society has chosen to love are those that glorify the zero-sum game of contemporary life. We have chosen to ignore or downgrade sports like surfing, or activities like climbing, which offer us a way of escaping that same zero-sum reality.

Of course, we may ultimately love sports because they are a direct sign of life and vitality, a pure example of what it means to live. I think that reason is the truest, most honest reason; it says how we feel about sports without pretension or confused metaphors; it speaks to what sports can mean to us without relying on Vince Lombardi quotes.

So, perhaps, we should seek out new activities to show us a real sign of life and vitality in our increasingly moribund world. Despite my respect for the athletic greatness of team sports, we need to go beyond the borders of a playing field to find the real virtues of sports.

Ted Nyman is Sun Senior Editor. Fast Times will appear every other Monday this semester.