Sports as the antidote to mere entertainment

Were this weekend’s NFL divisional playoff games entertaining, in the most generic sense of the word?

Absolutely, whether or not you had a particular rooting interest. The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay writes that it’s hard to beat the NFL’s entertainment value, despite that many problems plaguing the league and the sport and that will continue to trouble them both.

But if you did have a team involved — raising my hand here — then you understand that these matters were about much more than entertainment. A final, inexplicable, moment of joy, aborting what figured to be a long, gloomy winter, could never, ever be scripted the way it turned out, no matter how much time the Falcons and Seahawks spent practicing just such a scenario.

Picture 1Nick Hornby years ago delved deep into the fan’s soul to illustrate, as well as any writer ever has, why for so many this can never be mere entertainment:

One thing I know about a fan is this: it is not a vicarious pleasure, despite all appearances to the contrary . . . But when there is some kind of triumph, the pleasure does not radiate from the players outwards until it reaches the likes of us as the back of the terraces in a pale and diminished form; our fun is not in a watery version of the team’s fun . . .

The joy we feel on occasions like this is not a celebration of others’ good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity, and anyone who wishes to understand how football is to be consumed must realise this above all things.

Hours after Tony Gonzalez admitted that “I was on the ground crying, like a little baby,” one of many celebrity award shows was underway, summoning all kinds of social media snark, sass and empty banter that is no stranger to conversation about sports, except for this important point: Nobody was really commenting on how the TV programs, or movies, affected them.

But there was plenty of commentary about the dresses and fashions and hairstyles of the stars and Jodie Foster’s coming-out speech.

Was “Argo” a terrific movie? Certainly, to those who had seen it and raved about it. Was Daniel Day-Lewis superb in “Lincoln?” I think so, but it’s first film I’ve seen in the theatre in some time.

But there weren’t the disquisitions about why these excelled as movies, or as individual performances, since the context wasn’t about examining them as pieces of cinematic art.

The Joy of SportsIn moments like these, I turn, as I usually do, to the early pages of “The Joy of Sports,” where many years ago, as the sports television age was rounding into the dominant position it continues to hold, Michael Novak offered the ultimate rejoinder of resistance.

Novak was taking aim at a 1960s-influenced generation of sports journalists who looked at their subjects through the prism of politics and social issues, instead of only sports, and tried to trivialize them as a result.

I have referred to some of these passages before but they are essential to the approach I’m taking with this blog, and they perfectly sum up a game that still has me trembling with emotion like few ever have in my many years of watching all kinds of sports:

The motive for regarding sports as entertainment is to take the magic, mystification, and falsehood out of sports.

Sports are far more serious than the dramatic arts, much closer to primal symbols, metaphors, and acts, much more ancient and more frightening.

Those who think that sports are merely entertainment have been bemused by an entertainment culture. . . I don’t watch football to pass the time. The outcome of the game affects me. I care. Afterward, the emotion I have lived through continues to affect me. Football is not entertainment. It is far more important than that.

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