How You Played the Game

Feb 3, 2014

I’m afraid I missed the Super bowl, but then I miss it every year. I love a game, but professional sports have gone too far for me. They're too professional, too much like show business, too much about money and celebrity and, yes, too violent.

There's nothing wrong with playing games as amusements for an idle hour: my goodness we need amusements. Children, like young animals, play games naturally to learn physical and social skills, and because it’s simply fun. Play is free, and play is freedom. It keeps us young.

Games, which are organized play, should be joyful liberating things. But even children's play isn’t allowed to be spontaneous for long. Before they know it, their innocent games have become children’s sports, requiring complicated bureaucratic rules that are treated with almost religious reverence, coaches to impose the rules, training sessions, and expensive equipment. Kids are assigned to 'teams' and taught to compete against other 'teams,' teaching them a lesson that they may never forget.

The team is an extension of the ego. If we feel rather frail and vulnerable as individuals, we can feel strong as a member of a team, or even as a supporter. Team spirit appeals to some of the oldest survival instincts in human nature and, in one form or another, is behind all the wars and pogroms and crusades in human history, including those going on now.

"Winning is the only thing," that’s a famous quotation in the world of sports. The passion to win has invaded just about every human leisure activity. Even in fishing, that most tranquil of pastimes, you can attend seminars on 'how to be a winner.' Even flower arrangers compete to win. Grantland Rice, a famous sportswriter from another age, once daringly suggested that how you played the game was more important than whether you won or lost. Try telling that to the losing team and their millionaire coach. Winning really IS the only thing: that’s what we get when we pay other people to be athletic for us, especially when we pay them such enormous amounts of money.  

Sports are taken with great seriousness all over the world. Tune a shortwave radio, and you will hear sports reports coming from everywhere: India, China, Scotland, Argentina. The energy that men - mostly men - put into sports must be the equivalent of the power of the atom. If only we could harness it, and avoid the fallout, the world's energy problems would be solved.

Only professional wrestling seems immune, since it is much more like pure play than a sport. Wrestling, as the French intellectual Roland Barthes remarked years ago, is a dramatic performance of good and evil, suffering, defeat, and justice. It doesn't matter who wins. In wrestling, as in life, the injuries are mostly faked, and the final result is meaningless. The more I see of other sports, the more I like the cheerful and open joke of wrestling.

The phrase "It’s only a game" is often used as way of dismissing the grand and glorious world of sports.  But games are played just for the pleasure of playing. Sports look more and more like a branch of big business, an extended commercial for something or other. Whatever it is, I’m not buying.

Copyright: David Bouchier