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Sports: The great escapism

January 21, 2012

Maybe you find ludicrous the idea of a grown man yelling at grown men playing a children's games on his television, but for those of us who are sports fans and look forward to their team's next contest, pacing and psyching up as if we ourselves were preparing to enter the fray and arena of professional sports, the game, as any form of entertainment, serves as a means of escapism and fulfills a fundamental need to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves.
I am unabashedly a fanatic but I like to think a sensible and reasonable one at that. I draw a distinct line between celebrating a victory or lamenting a loss and rioting in the streets in response to either of those outcomes. My mania is relegated to my living room, as was demonstrated a few weeks ago after watching "my" NY Giants pull out a win in the fourth quarter against Dallas. It was following a blocked field goal by Jason Pierre-Paul with a single second left in the game that secured a 37-34 Giants victory. It was at that point that I noticed myself wearing a fixed smile that had developed and widened for the duration of the Giants' fourth-quarter comeback as they scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes and fourteen seconds.
It was at this point I realized the psychological effect games had on me. Whereas I was now elated, I had just minutes earlier when the Cowboys seemed the likely victors been a furious and malcontent fan. Acting as Monday morning quarterback on Sunday night, I cursed the coaches for their inept play-calling and the players for lack of hustle and inability to be perfect.
This episode inspired me to consider the sociological and psychological appeal of sports and why it is that so many people like myself take so seriously what is just a game and bestow such devotion on franchises and their players. Where does the connection between million dollar-athletes and myself, admittedly not a millionaire or athlete, originate.
Without trying to overstate or overanalyze what is really just entertainment, I want to understand why I and so many others care as much as we do about this game.
It's obvious that teams provide us with a token of regional pride; there is an identity in rooting for the home team no matter how far away from home we may find ourselves. I was born and raised in New York, New York and am now living in Pennsylvania. The NY Giants are cultural attaches or representatives of a fundamental part of my identity, who I am and who I consider myself to be, a New Yorker.
Additionally, any of us who have at one time or another played a pick-up game or thrown or caught a ball can thereby relate to the act itself. It is that same game, just multiplied on a stage a billion times greater in scale and volume.
With that the psychological appeal of sports is a byproduct of an embedded nostalgia within fandom that is so often linked to our youth. I fondly recall going to games with my father as a kid or playing league sports in my formative years. But aside from the sentimental value inherent for some in games and teams, sports are simply good entertainment. Games are as often enjoyed by those with no childhood connection to them, but rather through an instinctive human understanding and appreciation for competition.
This is because sports are theater, as akin to the Greek Colosseum as the Globe Theater: The personas and personalities, the players and teams you root for and the ones you love to hate. Our team as protagonist facing the antagonist of the challenger. The dramatics of a game echo the rising and falling action of a narrative. The emotional investment is the same as in any performance of good theater, with the audience riveted to the unraveling arc of the story. The vicarious thrill of watching a team or athlete rise against the odds works on the same level as good cinema in providing a renewed, albeit fleeting sense of optimism and possibility that anything can happen. As Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over 'til it's over."
The undetermined outcome, the possibility that anything can happen, that a team can defy the odds and Vegas bookmakers, as they say, on any given Sunday is a reinvigorating revelation, a novelty in contrast to the day-to-day predictability of our own routines. The personal narratives and human interest stories in sports, while overindulged at this point, have provided sportscasters and networks with countless hours and angles of coverage and have elevated the games to something altogether greater than the sum of its parts. From Schilling's bloody sock in Game 6 of the World Series to Theismann's broken leg, or Kirk Gibson in '88, these episodes while demonstrating human frailty inspire us and literally embody sheer will and the resilience of the human spirit.
As George Orwell said, “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty...and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals.”
Enough cannot be said for the appeal of the underdog. In a highly classed country like ours, there is a larger segment of the population that would consider itself the underdog or to borrow a catchphrase of late, part of the 99 percent.
Sociologically speaking, sports serve as a common ground, a neutral subject when appropriate to avoid hot-button issues like politics or religion.
The rules are simple enough in sports. Out of bounds, playclock, personal foul. In Washington, the lawmakers and those charged with upholding the rule books seem more often than not to be the ones bending and/or breaking them. Washington's is a league and rulebook designed to be cryptic and opaque, designed to prevent the majority of us from truly understanding it and that is why sports are an equalizer of sorts: They are enjoyed equally by the affluent and the indigent.
As politicians disappoint and disillusion us all the time, what's wrong with placing our hopes in the hands of athletes for an hour a week? After all, even if they fail us, it's still just a game.
And with the Giants headed to the NFC Championship this weekend, you can be sure to find me, a grown man, yelling at the grown men playing children's games on his television, enjoying the spectacle of sport. And once the season ends and the presidential campaigns continue, life will be as it was and always has been, with one eye looking forward to next season.
--by Colin Deppen, Staff Writer

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