September 12, 2011

Why Sports Matter, and Why They Don’t

Print More

As the NFL kicked off this weekend and MLB continued winding down its regular season, the leagues were inevitably drawn into the national remembrance of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This relationship begs the question of what the place of organized professional sports is in the context of such events. Some say sports helps to heal, while others say they serve no purpose whatsoever. Some say they provide an escape, while others say that they provide a sense of normalcy.

For some, sports may provide healing in the same way that other ritualized behaviors such as praying together in church would. Others might look at sports as a meaningless pursuit amid the absurdity of the moment. From a fan’s perspective, it is easy to see how sports can provide healing, as was the case for many New Yorkers who attended those 2001 World Series games in Yankee Stadium. For a player, it is understandable that Pat Tillman would have questioned playing football as opposed to serving in the military given the circumstances.

It is easy to enter the fantastical world of sports fandom where you make yourself ignorant of the outside world for a few hours at a time. It is undeniably a thrilling experience to become so engrossed in your team when they provide you with moments of exuberance and games that you will never forget, and it is even better when you are in the stadium and able to share this experience with thousands more. For a few hours this is the only world you know — you have triumphed over your opponent — even better if it is your rival. Not only can you revel in victory for victory’s sake, but also because ultimately that win had the added bonus of inflicting a painful loss on your opponent. There are no real casualties involved. And when you lose, well there is always the next game, and at worse there is always next year.

The usual playing of sports can provide a sense of normalcy. After 9/11 the NFL and MLB put their seasons on hold for at least a week, in essence capturing the gravity of the events that had just unfolded. And the return of players to the diamond and the gridiron was symptomatic of a return to normalcy. It can be argued that as much as sports seem to provide an escape from “real” life, sports are inevitably a part of “real” life. They are a significant social institution of this country. This is why the leagues were put on hold for a period of time. This is why the happenings in these leagues were colored by what had recently happened just outside the world that these leagues inhabit. The heroics of the Yankees in the World Series became a metaphor for the American spirit. The Patriots temporarily became America’s team in the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, this relationship with the world outside these leagues does not solely shape the narrative in a positive way. It also allows for somber reminders to infiltrate this world. Anniversaries such as this weekend’s are opportunities to unfurl the American flag across the field, sing heartening renditions of the “Star Spangled Banner” and wear patriotic tributes on uniforms. In some stadiums, they have not stopped singing “God Bless America” during games, and in most others it is sung more often than it was before. And as is the case when entering other public places, enhanced security measures such as bag checks and pat-downs are required before gaining admission in the sports world.

So the games go on, providing healing for some and meaning nothing for others, while providing an escape and a sign of a return to normalcy — perhaps even serving as the means of pleasant escape in the midst of the drudgery of life for some. And the games probably mean a multitude of things to other people. Sports matter and they don’t matter. Sports can be a world apart and they can be a world all too closely linked to the events happening outside the walls of their stadiums.

If there is a unifying feature of the place of sports amid all these interpretations it is that they are part of the conversation of what should matter. They allow us to reflect on what matters to us. Even when it seems as though sports matter very little, they at least serve to put things in perspective. For a time it seemed as though sports did not matter —could not matter — but then they came back and it was as though they could matter — should matter. And so the conversation continued, and will continue.

Original Author: Brian Bencomo