It is interesting to ask the question that what is it about sport that it has caught the attention and held the interest of Western societies so strongly.
I don’t feel competent to comment on the phenomenon in Western societies generally and therefore I will restrict my comments to observations about what I am familiar with, feeling confident that much of what I write will be more broadly applicable.
Sport has come to occupy some intermediary position between the secular and the sacred.
In Australia if you visit the same sacred shrine every Sunday it is more likely to be a football field than a church. And just like the church goers you will probably be dressed in all your finery wearing scarves and jerseys and other accoutrements with the club colours emblazoned on them. And instead of hymns and prayers you will be uttering or singing the club’s chant, slogan or anthem. And the venues themselves take on the air of sanctity. Just listen to the cricketers talk in hushed tones about Lords or the AFL fanatics about the MCG!
Some social commentators attribute the rise of sport merely to capitalist society maximising returns from sought after entertainment. Such commentators will decry the sacrifice of tradition and sportsmanship at the altar of Mammon. But I suspect this begs the question of why sport is so popular in the first place. Before television rights and players unions, events such as cricket test matches were hugely popular in Australia and probably drew proportionately greater crowds in decades long past even than they currently do.
It is, however, hard to dispute that the customs of fair play and acknowledgement of the skill of your opponents has also waned in those decades.
In my youth (I know it was a long time ago and any reference to it is bound to make my children groan!) when a rugby league or rugby union player scored a try, after the crowd reacted to the triumph in which ever way their loyalties dictated, a hush would come over the ground while the kicker tried to convert. There was a reverent silence whilst he lined up the ball and proceeded in his attempt to put it over the crossbar. Today as the kicker approaches the ball for the conversion attempt an almighty hullabaloo ensues trying to distract the kicker from his objective.
As well, when I played cricket and the captain came into bat, the opposing captain would call out “captain, boys” and the incoming player would be greeted with a polite round of applause. Today he is likely to be harangued with questions about his parentage and attempts at humiliation from whatever source is deemed appropriate.
And being a high school long distance runner in my youth, I remember well the incident involving Australia’s champion athlete John Landy. Landy, as well as his considerable athletic feats, is remembered for his performance in the 1500 metres final at the 1956 Australian National Championships prior to the Melbourne Olympic Games. In the race, Landy stopped and doubled back to check on fellow runner Ron Clarke after another runner clipped Clarke’s heel, causing him to fall early in the third lap of the race. Clarke, the then-junior 1500 metre world champion, who had been leading the race, with Landy’s help got back to his feet and started running again; Landy followed. Incredibly, in the final two laps Landy made up a large deficit to win the race, something considered one of the greatest moments in Australian sporting history. Sport historians have written “It was a spontaneous gesture of sportsmanship and it has never been forgotten.”
There is of course an alternative point of view to sport being other than a commercialised entertainment phenomenon raised by sociologists (including Australia’s own John Carroll, Professor of Sociology at Latrobe University) that sport for young males is a societally approved substitute for war.
“It is hard to overestimate the therapeutic importance of violent team sport, especially football, for young men. Here is the one approved outlet for that explosive mixture of the multiple frustrations of the transition from boyhood to manhood, and the innate need of the male animal for power.”
He goes on to argue that sport is the civilised substitute for war. He maintains that most young men subscribe to the warrior ethos and need opportunities to display their physical prowess. Young men involved in football teams develop, he asserts, the same bonds of loyalty and unselfish devotion to each other that are typically forged in war among soldiers. Society (well at least sports journalists and sports fanatics) is complicit in this phenomenon by using language that reinforces the concept like calling players “warriors” and “heroes”.
I think Carroll overstates his case.
To begin with, with rare exceptions, indulging in violent sport is not life-threatening. What is at stake is not the physical self, but the psychic self – the ego. When the football Grand Final is over there are no bodies on the field. But there are often quite a few grown men weeping! And here lies the problem. The defeated warrior is not slain – he is humiliated! They don’t care that they have acquitted themselves well. They are not the champions and only that outcome would have been sufficient.
In a war, loss may well mean not only the warrior’s personal demise but the demise of kin, tribe or country. In sport loss is mainly a loss of face – a humiliation suffered by players and supporters.
Thus in my mind equating sport with war is somewhat confected. I am sure that most who make the comparison have not experienced war. I can always remember the remarks of the great Australian cricketing all-rounder, Keith Miller. A reporter once asked him something to the effect, “How do you cope with the stress of being a test cricketer.”
Miller, who had been a fighter pilot in World War II, responded, “That’s not stress, son. Stress is having a Messerschmitt up your arse!”
So what then is sport all about? I suppose like most things it has different attractions for different people.
In my youth I played a lot of sport. Whilst I enjoyed the team sports like cricket and football, I played for many poorly performed sides. It would be difficult to rationalise my participation if winning had been a priority consideration. Even on a losing side there was still great camaraderie and a joy to be derived from the social nature of the encounter. I made many friends from both the teams I played for and those I played against.
And of course even on a losing side there was still a certain joy in playing a nice stroke in cricket, of scoring the occasional try in football or bringing down a worthy opponent in a good tackle.
Carroll and others would be well advised to read the works of the evolutionary psychologists. It has always been observed that young men are less risk averse than young women. It is a fact of life that young males are likely to die in motor vehicle accidents involving speed and in violent confrontations with rivals. At first glance such risky activities would not seem to lead to an evolutionary advantage, often leading to death or to debilitating injury. But of course it does lead to an evolutionary advantage because young women are generally not attracted to wimps. Displays of bravado are reinforced by increased attention from the opposite sex!
But that aside, we must concur that the attraction of sport to spectators is that they are able to participate vicariously in contests very few of them would ever have the ability personally to join. And they can do so at no personal physical risk. If you scan the average crowd at football you would have to say that among the most vociferous and often the most critical of spectators are those who could barely run across the field rather than endure the rigours of a game as a player! And in latter years I have to confess of joining their ranks!
One of the disappointing side-effects that we now have to endure because we have confected sport as a form of war is that any tactics are deemed appropriate to help you win. We have just witnessed some rather unedifying sledging in the current test series of Australia versus England. Former test umpire Lou Rowan made the good point that players that resorted to these tactics were indicating that when they resorted to denigrating the opposition they doubted whether they had the natural skills to defeat their opponents. The ex-English captain Michael Atherton wrote a piece recently reminding the players that even though they are playing test cricket it is still just a game! I am sure Keith Miller would have concurred with that!