Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Implacable Allure of Sports

Today is a unique day in the sports world; quite literally, two of the highest watched sporting events are being played today. First, there was the men's final of the Australian Open tennis (one of the most watched events worldwide and in Austrailia). Then, the Superbowl (THE most watched sporting event in the United States).

A few do not like sports at all. Others are completely indifferent to sports - take 'em or leave 'em. Some are postively fanatical about sports. Personally, I am indifferent to many sports like basketball, cycling, cricket, and (to my fiancee's chagrin) volleyball. I do, however, love to watch football and follow men's (and to a lesser degree, women's) tennis with a passion.

So what is so exciting about sports? Why do I gladly sit for five hours at a stretch just to watch 2 competitors hit a ball back and forth across a court? In an obvious sense, different people like, or love, sports for different reason. Some, generally athletes or the athletically inclined, like watching sports to admire the physical excellence that it entails. This is why many tennis fans love watching the excellent Roger Federer glide a backhand winner, and why football fans thrill to see Troy Polumalu make dazzling defensive plays. Like admierers of a musician's technical proficiency, some sports fans enjoyment comes from being able to marvel at athletes' abilities.

Of course, while some listen to music to admire its technical beauty, others listen to admire its emotional beauty. That is why I, a non-athlete for sure, watch sports. LIke any good reality show, sports provide unscripted drama. A close tennis match has an incomparable power to make my heart pound and keep me glued to the television (no matter how much work I really should be doing instead).

Pick a person or team to root for, though, and the intensity increases. I can certainly be entertained by a football game with teams I care nothing about, but it is nothing compared to the excited feeling of watching a New England Patriots or Baltimore Ravens game. (While I will watch the Superbowl this year, it will be nowhere near as exciting as when the Patriots were in last year's.)

The other thrill that sports provides but regular television does not (with the exception of reality shows) is the thrill of watching a yet-to-be-determined game become determined. Once we have a team or player to root for, the excitement comes from the very idea that their win is not assured, but can only be made (or lost) moment-by-moment. Every sports fan knkows that it is simply no real fun to watch a match/game the outcome of which is already known. How many times have we heard the horror story of the football fan who taped the game in his absence, made it home to watch the game, only to accidentally see the final score on the news. He can still watch the game - and it is the same game whether he knows the outcome or not - but the excitement of doing so will be all but dead.

Another often ignored reason that some watch sports is that it provides a non-burdensome outlet to channel aggression. I had to explain this last night when explaining to my fiancee why I sometimes like to watch the Ultimate Fighting Championships . While one can pretend that the reason we (guys WAY more than girls) watch "violent" sports is because of its artistry or technical excellence, these two things can just as easily be seen in ice-skating and freestyle gymnastics. We really watch UFC, boxing, kickboxing, and Australian-rules football for the thrill of watching guys get pummelled, bloodied, and beaten into submisison; we watch these because it gives a release to aggression (Wililam James's "Moral Equivalent to War" maybe?)

Whyever we watch sports, sports have been a part of our human nature, seemingly, since as far back as recorded history will go. For my sake and for the sake of millions of other sports lovers, I hope this trend continues.

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