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Why Liking Sports is Bad

by Patri Friedman

Recently, I heard an ad on the radio whose basic plot was as follows:

The narrator is a lawyer, but he doesn't seem to be getting ahead in the firm. For one thing, everyone else is always talking about sports, a subject he knows little about. They are always discussing teams, games, who will win this week, that sort of thing. His passion is Flamenco dancing, which just doesn't seem to ever get brought up. Then, he starts reading so-and-so's sports column in such-and-such a magazine.

It tells him what opinions to have, and he quotes the column during the water cooler bull sessions, resulting in enthusiastic high-fives among his co-workers. A few months later, he makes partner, and finally has the courage to dance his Flamenco at the next company party.

The ad is horrible in general, telling us that we have to conform in order to get ahead, and that eccentricity is only tolerated after success. While this may be an unfortunate truth about the lame-ass culture in which we live, it still deserves criticism. The particular sort of conforming, namely our culture's obsession with sports, requires some explanation as to why it is a bad thing. First, let me frankly admit that there are a lot of different reasons why people like sports, and many of these are good. Still, I believe that the particular negative that I focus on is a strong part of the psychology, and I haven't heard it discussed before.

Lets cover some of the good reasons first. It is fun to watch people who are good at doing things, especially physical activities. There is a certain grace inherent in extreme levels of athletic ability, and it is beautiful. Athletes also stretch the limits of human ability, and as humans, we are naturally interested in seeing what is possible for members of our race to accomplish. The ability of humans to find patterns in data and to predict the future based on the past is an important one, and sports teams are a complicated and interesting place to exercise this ability. Since it is such a common forum for this, people can compare their methods with those of friends and professionals, evaluate people based on their ability, and even make a living betting, if they are good enough. Still, it should be noted that there are other places to explore prediction that are actually relevant to the world, like the stock market.

Sometimes, sports teams are allied with regions, countries, or institutions, and the people watching are members of those areas. Often, the connection is meaningless - professional athletes usually have little to do with the cities for which they play. Occasionally, however, the success or failure of a team actually indicates something about its affiliated entity. When two countries compete in the Olympics, for example, not only is the ability of those countries to find and train athletes being tested, but, for countries that are genetically homogenous (unlike the United States), the athletic prowess of their race is being measured. The results have a very real meaning to other members of that race. In high schools, the members of the team are often personal friends of their fans, and so it is natural for those fans to care about the success or failure of the team.

The particular area of misplaced enthusiasm which I am focusing on, however is the American love for professional sports (the worldwide obsession with football is probably similar, but I am not as familiar with it). These things are, I believe, mostly not motivated by the above reasons. Instead, I think there are some much worse ones.

First, an axiom. Who wins these sporting contests is irrelevant. It does not matter, except inasmuch as people choose to make it matter. It does not make the world a better or worse place. This is important, and if you don't accept it the rest of this ain't gonna work, so give some serious thought to it.

The first problem is that when people care about sports teams, they are attaching their happiness to arbitrary phenomena beyond their control. They have basically nothing to do with whether "their team" wins or loses. They are getting on an emotional roller coaster and letting someone else steer. This is not always bad - experiencing emotional swings that don't actually matter can be useful. In movies, for example, we enjoy having our emotions manipulated in an artificial context. It is fun to "practice" emotions that we do not often experience in life, without the danger of it making us unhappy for very long.

Movies, however, last for a short, well-defined period. When they are over, we go back to our real lives and our real emotions. The boundaries of sports are much fuzzier. Games occur frequently, and thus the associated emotions are a constant part of the fan's life. This gets them used to caring about things they cannot change, which I think is a bad thing. We have the power to affect our lives and the world around us, and ignoring that generally makes the world a worse place. Learning to care a lot about things that do not matter and you cannot affect is bad, especially when there are so many things that matter and you can affect to care about. When our favorite team loses, we get to bitch, moan, and complain to others, but there isn't actually anything we can do about it. This cannot but create a feeling of helplessness. And on the other side of the coin, since we can't do anything about it, we aren't expected to do anything. There is no pressure, no responsibility, no possible criticism for our actions. Sweet, huh? What a fucking cop-out.

Much of the lure of sports lies in the illusion that they are important. It is pretty clear, when you think about it, that they aren't, but the illusion is strong. After all, an awful lot of people care about them. Our newspapers in the morning and news shows at night have a business segment, a political segment, and a sports segment, implying that these sectors are of equal value. There are magazines devoted to sports. People can gather with tens of thousands of others in order to cheer for a sports team. Random strangers will discuss sports with you. Athletes are paid vast salaries, given roles in movies, and get to pitch products in advertisements - the ultimate sign of success in our society of commercialism. It is no wonder that so many are fooled into taking them with far more seriousness than they deserve.

Many people feel that they don't have important things to care about. People like to feel important, and they like to talk about things that matter. Unfortunately, talking about things that matter tends to bring up a lot of thorny, difficult questions and issues. Often the answers are unpleasant, and people don't like things that are unpleasant. Thus the subject of sports acts as an empty, meaningless alternative to the real issues that exist in the world.

A distraction, a fluttering cape, an opiate to keep the masses down. So next sunday, instead of sitting in front of the tube while your brain slowly melts, try concentrating on something that will affect your life. Take the jog in the park you always wimp out on, do some work on the house, volunteer to help the less fortunate, even just sit around and read a book that will teach you something (lazy, restful ways of affecting your life are few, but they do exist). I, and the world, and most importantly, your life, will thank you for it.

Patri Friedman /