This probably isn’t the best time to have this discussion. Indictments, criminal and otherwise, are floating around in the smoggy sports air. Some people, who probably didn’t like sports — especially football — much at all, are using the current troubles to crow their triumphant and smug “I-told-you-sos.” Others are commenting and opining because it’s their job. Still others are commenting because it’s what you do on your computer, even though you have no more knowledge of the situation than anyone else does. And still others are just sitting down in front of their TVs on Sunday afternoon and watching/shouting/cheering/crying when their teams win or lose.
I acknowledge all of that, and I agree that it’s easy to get a little (or a lot) cynical. It seeps into the college game, and it seeps into youth programs where parents who yell at their pro teams (who can’t hear them) start to yell at their kids or their kids’ coaches (who can hear them). It’s all a little disgusting. But sports endure. More rules, maybe. More “safeguards” put in place. More agreements and bargaining and limits on what can and cannot be done by athletes. But people, even in spite of themselves, still watch. They still pay to see the games live. They still buy the jerseys and the hats and the other paraphernalia. Why? Why do sports (and for me, it’s primarily football) continue to compel our attention, even when we’re annoyed or disturbed (and sometimes, it still happens, inspired) by the lives of athletes off the field?
I don’t have a full answer to that question, but I do wonder if part of the current problem is that both fans and athletes take sports too seriously. These are games, after all. Some people view that to be an argument against pro sports. I think it is actually the opposite: we enjoy watching sports precisely because they are not serious — not serious, at least, in the same way Christ and family and literature are serious. Sports are, in fact, like all good things: problematic when they leave their proper realm.
Chesterton once wrote on politics:
Males, like females, in the course of that old fight between the public and private house, had indulged in overstatement and extravagance, feeling that they must keep up their end of the see-saw. We told our wives that Parliament had sat late on most essential business; but it never crossed our minds that our wives would believe it. We said that everyone must have a vote in the country; similarly our wives said that no one must have a pipe in the drawing room. In both cases the idea was the same. “It does not matter much, but if you let those things slide there is chaos.” We said that Lord Huggins or Mr. Buggins was absolutely necessary to the country. We knew quite well that nothing is necessary to the country except that the men should be men and the women women. We knew this; we thought the women knew it even more clearly; and we thought the women would say it. Suddenly, without warning, the women have begun to say all the nonsense that we ourselves hardly believed when we said it. The solemnity of politics; the necessity of votes; the necessity of Huggins; the necessity of Buggins; all these flow in a pellucid stream from the lips of all the suffragette speakers. I suppose in every fight, however old, one has a vague aspiration to conquer; but we never wanted to conquer women so completely as this. We only expected that they might leave us a little more margin for our nonsense; we never expected that they would accept it seriously as sense. [What’s Wrong with the World, Part 3, VII]
Now, whatever you want to make of his arguments against female suffrage, I feel like something similar has happened with sports; not necessarily between men and women (although something of Chesterton’s description comes through), but in the argument about whether sports matter. Certain people (male or female) might act, discuss, argue as if sports really mattered to the world, as much as Huggins or Buggins mattered to the world. We never expected to be taken seriously. Suddenly, people have begun to say all the nonsense that we sports fans hardly believed when we said it. It was always a diversion. It was always something declaimed as serious and important when it was nothing of the sort.
But now people take it seriously. I don’t know if the athletes themselves always did. But sports has, in many ways, become too serious for its own good, as all idols eventually do. It is no idol to cheer for a team, to find oneself in a community of like-minded individuals celebrating or commiserating together. It is no idol to care what the team’s record is or whether they make the playoffs. It becomes an idol when it leaves the realm of the sport and enters the realm of the serious. It is an idol when it begins to matter in the same way your religion or, to a lesser degree, your family matter. From the Christian perspective, sport (which, I venture to suggest, has been around since the beginning of creation) is simply one more good thing in the creation. It is not The Good. And it would be good if we could remember that again.