The love of – nay, addiction to – competitive and solitary sports cuts across all social-economic strata and throughout all the demographics. Whether as a passive consumer (spectator), a fan, or as a participant and practitioner, everyone enjoys one form of sport or another. Wherefrom this universal propensity?
Sports cater to multiple psychological and physiological deep-set needs. In this they are unique: no other activity responds as do sports to so many dimensions of one’s person, both emotional, and physical. But, on a deeper level, sports provide more than instant gratification of primal (or base, depending on one’s point of view) instincts, such as the urge to compete and to dominate.
Sports, both competitive and solitary, are morality plays. The athlete confronts other sportspersons, or nature, or his (her) own limitations. Winning or overcoming these hurdles is interpreted to be the triumph of good over evil, superior over inferior, the best over merely adequate, merit over patronage. It is a vindication of the principles of quotidian-religious morality: efforts are rewarded; determination yields achievement; quality is on top; justice is done.
The world is riven by seemingly random acts of terror; replete with inane behavior; governed by uncontrollable impulses; and devoid of meaning. Sports are rule-based. Theirs is a predictable universe where umpires largely implement impersonal, yet just principles. Sports is about how the world should have been (and, regrettably, isn’t). It is a safe delusion; a comfort zone; a promise and a demonstration that humans are capable of engendering a utopia.
That is not to say that sports are sterile or irrelevant to our daily lives. On the very contrary. They are an encapsulation and a simulation of Life: they incorporate conflict and drama, teamwork and striving, personal struggle and communal strife, winning and losing. Sports foster learning in a safe environment. Better be defeated in a football match or on the tennis court than lose your life on the battlefield.
The contestants are not the only ones to benefit. From their detached, safe, and isolated perches, observers of sports games, however vicariously, enhance their trove of experiences; learn new skills; encounter manifold situations; augment their coping strategies; and personally grow and develop.
In sports, there is always a second chance, often denied us by Life and nature. No loss is permanent and crippling; no defeat is insurmountable and irreversible. Reversal is but a temporary condition, not the antechamber to annihilation. Safe in this certainty, sportsmen and spectators dare, experiment, venture out, and explore. A sense of adventure permeates all sports and, with few exceptions, it is rarely accompanied by impending doom or the exorbitant proverbial price-tag.
Nothing like sports to encourage a sense of belonging, togetherness, and we-ness. Sports involve teamwork; a meeting of minds; negotiation and bartering; strategic games; bonding; and the narcissism of small differences (when we reserve our most virulent emotions – aggression, hatred, envy towards those who resemble us the most: the fans of the opposing team, for instance).
Sports, like other addictions, also provide their proponents and participants with an “exo-skeleton”: a sense of meaning; a schedule of events; a regime of training; rites, rituals, and ceremonies; uniforms and insignia. It imbues an otherwise chaotic and purposeless life with a sense of mission and with a direction.
6. Narcissistic Gratification
It takes years to become a medical doctor and decades to win a prize or award in academe. It requires intelligence, perseverance, and an inordinate amount of effort. One’s status as an author or scientist reflects a potent cocktail of natural endowments and hard labor.
It is far less onerous for a sports fan to acquire and claim expertise and thus inspire awe in his listeners and gain the respect of his peers. The fan may be an utter failure in other spheres of life, but he or she can still stake a claim to adulation and admiration by virtue of their fount of sports trivia and narrative skills.
Sports therefore provide a shortcut to accomplishment and its rewards. As most sports are uncomplicated affairs, the barrier to entry is low. Sports are great equalizers: one’s status outside the arena, the field, or the court is irrelevant. One’s standing is really determined by one’s degree of obsession.
Excerpt from The Madness of Playing Games by Sam Vaknin, Ph. D.