“Soccer is popular because stupidity is popular.” So says renowned author Jorge Luis Borges. As an Argentine who lived under successive dictatorships, Borges saw soccer as a breeding ground for nationalism and ignorance. Is it any coincidence that the world’s most fanatic and successful soccer nations have histories of right-wing nationalism? (Germany, Italy, Argentina, Brazil.) In the United States, this nationalism is tied into other sports such as American football. (While basketball is certainly popular, it’s interesting to note that the two sports most associated with Americanism are American football and baseball, “America’s pastime,” and yet each of these sports, in particular the former, receives little attention outside the United States. So while the whole world is aware of Germany’s soccer superiority, Americans are most passionate about sports that no one else cares about, which in a way makes America’s melding of sports and nationalism all the more insular and disturbing.)
Noam Chomsky adds that spectator sports in the United States distract people’s attentions from the real problems of society. Our innate desire to challenge and question authority is directed at coaches and referees, rather than anyone of significance. Thus spectator sports function as a means of maintaining the status quo, entrenching power and encouraging conformity, since all of our oppositional instincts are used up in the sports world. To Chomsky, sports is but one small piece of a complex system of conformity, but it’s certainly not innocent.
“(People) know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on,” Chomsky says. “These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief. Now it seems to me that the same intellectual skill and capacity for understanding and for accumulating evidence and gaining information and thinking through problems could be used — would be used — under different systems of governance…in areas that really matter to human life.”
While most of my attention is given to film, music, philosophy, theology and other so-called “intellectual” pursuits, I am also a sports fan. Occasionally people who don’t know me well are surprised when I tell them I have Winnipeg Blue Bomber season tickets or that I watch nearly every Jets game on television. They also might be aghast at my enthusiasm for the return of the NHL to Winnipeg, or the fact that I own, and have watched, the entire 1991 Minnesota Twins World Series championship on DVD.
Some would question my integrity, intelligence, and especially my “hipness” by my admission that I’m a sports fan. Can someone be “intellectual” and enjoy a sporting event? Is it ethical? Can I go to an art exhibit one day and a hockey game the next?
Honestly, I’m not too concerned about these outside assessments, especially regarding the relative coolness of these endeavours. The ethical implications give me more pause, however. There are legitimate concerns. Although I do argue about sports quite a lot, as my mother will attest, for me watching sports primarily functions not, as Chomsky suggests, as a way venting opposition that might otherwise be used in criticism of social structures (I’m certainly not shy about critiquing problems I see in the world), but it’s rather more emotional for me.
It’s not about the intellect. I’m pretty jaded, almost anti-emotional at times, but watching sports allows me to engage my emotional side. I yell (and curse), and cheer (though with my teams that’s rather rare.) To me sports is only entertaining if I care passionately about who is going to win. I’m not one of those who can just sit down and watch any sporting event to appreciate the athleticism or something. (This is why I actually find the Olympics less engaging than league sports because although, sure, I’d like to see Canada win, I don’t have the same long-standing emotional connection to the athletes as I do with my own teams). When I watch, I love one team and hate the other and I normally cheer for the underdog (when my own local team is not playing). I guess, in a sense, I have a very black and white moral code when it comes to sports and who to cheer for. I despise the fact that some people rather arbitrarily select teams to cheer for. In my emotionally-driven rationale, these people don’t have same “right” to cheer for their selected teams as people like me who had no choice; my teams were selected by geography. I was born into them. I despise even more those who select the very best and popular teams (the Yankees, Manchester United, etc.), and doubt they could ever take the same satisfaction in those teams winning a championship as someone who has long-suffered with a team they had no choice but to cheer for.
But, as I said, none of this is intellectually based. It’s not rational, even though it has shades of ethics. It’s all about emotion. It’s foolish and I know it. But perhaps I follow sports in this way precisely because in so many other aspects of my life, I do engage in deep, and hopefully rational, thought, and am left with nuance, shades of grey, and ambiguity. To me, sports is black and white. It’s right and wrong. Perhaps I agree with Chomsky more than I realized.