Why Do Men Love Sports So Much?

Bill Simmons is one of the best sportswriters I’ve read. His prose pops with ideas, digressions and extrapolations. He churns out words at a high volume (especially in his book on the NBA, but also in his columns for Grantland, which can run to 10,000 words), but still manages to be graceful.

I’m a relative newbie in reading The Sports Guy. I’ve enjoyed reading pieces, by Simmons and the Grantland website’s “usual gang of idiots” (that’s a MAD Magazine reference, for you young’uns), that treat sports as something worth thinking about. (And mocking. And questioning. And loving, all the same.) From the start of this online discussion of sport and pop culture, indeed for his whole career, Simmons has been willing – eager – to rip off the mask of “objectivity” that supposedly marks the true “sports journalist”, and write as an unabashed fan. It’s no shock when a Grantland writer drop a fairly high-cult literary reference into a piece on doomed basketball franchises or tragic-comic ballplayers, but Simmons’s niche is emotion, plumbing the beer-sodden basements of “the agony of defeat”, and the dizzy champagne heights of joy and optimism, when the Good Guys win and whichever Evil Empire threatens them has been justly humiliated.

Simmons thrives on an unapologetic rooting for the laundry of all things New England and an amusing hatred for everything New York teams do and stand for. (See also: Lakers, Los Angeles.)  He shares all this with his father, the sower of the seed of Simmons’s athletic romance and still a voice of yearning and good-hearted regard for the higher values of sport (and pained acceptance of Boston losses, and a kind of bewildered joy at the wins, especially those involving the Bruins). Simmons is an unabashed idealist about these values and what they could and should mean, but he’s no fool. He walks an interesting line between his feeling for sport and what he has come to understand about what and who athletes are, what their performance means to them and to us, and what makes a fan a fan.

Grantland would be an interesting place for a Lakers fanatic to hang out, or for a lover of the New York Giants, whose two most recent Super Bowl victories were upsets of the favored Brady/Belichick (and Simmons) Patriots. And in the wake of a Super Bowl defeat for “my team”, Simmons had this to say:

This was a night that made you say, ‘Why does this matter to me so much? Isn’t it fundamentally stupid that this matters so much?’ This was a night when you try to keep everything in perspective by going through the checklist of reasons why youshouldn’t be depressed — ‘Are my kids healthy?’ (CHECK) ‘Do I love my significant other?’ (CHECK) ‘Are my parents still alive and healthy?’ (CHECK) ‘Do I like my job?’ (CHECK) ‘Do I have a good group of friends?’ (CHECK) — and just by doing that, you feel like the biggest moron on the planet.

I have never been able to answer the question, ‘Why does this matter to me so much?’ That’s just the way it’s always been. Ever since I can remember. You get older, your life changes, your friends change, your house changes, family members start dying, your kids start morphing into miniature people … and yet, one thing never changes for anyone who truly cares about sports. See, there’s no feeling quite like watching your team blowing a big game. It’s devastating. It’s paralyzing. It’s the only feeling that a 6-year-old, a 42-year-old and a 64-year-old can shareexactly. You never get over it. You never stop thinking about the three or four plays that could have swung the game. It becomes something of a sports tattoo. You live with it forever, and then you die.

When I was 8, my sorrow was huge, outraged, moist and very loud when the Detroit Red Wings lost in the Stanley Cup finals to my gloating older brother’s Canadiens de Montreal. When I was 32, the Duke Blue Devils basketball men lost the NCAA championship to the Evil Empire of Tarkanian and his UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, not having yet become the bad guys themselves. I had been a Blue Devils point guard in high school (we wore blue and gold), and the humiliation of Bobby Hurley and the rest of the Dukesters was mine. At 51, even though the high school basketball team I was coaching was a fixer-upper in a new city, even though we were in the second-tier league, even though the most talented players had already quit on me – maybe because of that – it took me weeks to stop thinking about what might have been after a semifinal loss. I knew what Simmons was talking about in the Super Bowl article, to an almost embarrassing degree. Having obsessed over The Question – why does this matter to me so much? – for even longer than The Sports Guy has, I decided to take my shot at answering it. Buckle up, kids.

In no special order, here is why sport is so important, especially to those of us of the male persuasion:

There is always a father there. (Even when there isn’t. Especially when there isn’t.) Simmons had an ideal apprenticeship, learning about sports side by side with a father he loves and with whom he still shares the passion, the messages and phone calls, the giddy moments of victory (“did that really happen?”) and, most sharply, the losses. Oh, the losses. (“Just one more play, one last hope, one more miracle, that’s all we needed!”) Others of us, some with a smoking hole where a father should be, use sport to look for a Dad they never had, or never knew, gone too soon or wrapped up too tightly or too fucked up to be found. Sport gives many men the feeling of being fathered (and brothered), of finding in a legendary coach (John Wooden, for me) or a venerable athlete (Gordie Howe, playing with his sons at the end of his ice-time), or a kindly local whistle-blower a substitute, a fill-in-the-blank for that burning absence. And if we’re lucky, smart, conscious, willing to get off the bench of our self-absorption, we might even do a decent job of being that ever-lovin’ Dadderoo for somebody else. Good for us.

A moral alternative. (Moral?) Sports are so simple. There, virtuosity is visible. Success and failure, dreams and achievements, progress and decline have clear and measurable shapes. For all our paint-by-number enthusiasms for the complexity and variety in sport, one of its appeals is that things are made (or can be) fairly black-and-white for us. (“Four legs good, two legs bad!” as the barnyard learns to chant in Orwell’s fable Animal Farm. “Green and white good! Purple and gold bad!” bleat the Celtics fans.) Long before there was Star Wars, there was every form of hometown allegiance against the hulking, brainless brutes from the next town over. And if we were really lucky, we could march into that battle, and our goodness and hard work and painfully won skills could be expressed on that field of honor. It was the elevated consciousness and living large feeling that war brings, but with bruises and casts instead of caskets, and an upside-down scoreboard instead of pillage and destruction, if the brutes really were better than us. And if we won? At our worst, we swagger and brag, but at the best, life could seem, at least for a little while, as if there was order, goodness validated and rewarded, and a bright future of possibility and success. (And maybe even some giddy and grateful sex for the conquering heroes! Or maybe we’d be so gosh-frickin’ happy that we wouldn’t need that particular lubrication to feel good about life and being in it.) Sport as “a moral equivalent of war” is an idea that titles an essay by the American psychologist/philosopher William James (1842-1910). Fighter-plane fly-overs at Super Bowls, Olympic militarism and the horror of sport-gone-mad that is seen in a game-triggered riot – all these are the dark shadow of what I persist in believing is a noble concept.

I wish I could do that! Although it is not always true, fan-dom is often rooted in our having experienced the game itself. Another pressure-shedding Kobe Bryant jumpshot (sorry, Bill) has deeper meaning if we’ve hit the odd jumper ourselves, even if it was only in the driveway, although in our hearts we know how much bigger he is, higher he jumps, harder he works and more graceful he appears at this peculiar (and otherwise utterly useless) skill than we do. My best coach and long-time buddy, for whom sport was mother and father, family and faith in one dedicated and occasionally unkind package, once said, “I could watch someone do anything, as long as he was the best in the world at it.” His point: we dig skill. Okay, but he wouldn’t have walked across the road to watch the world’s greatest mathematician or its finest writer of sonnets. Two or three times, even in the most uninspired or inconsequential of games, professional sport allows us to see virtuosity in motion, perfection under glass (on the grass, in the grasp, far beyond our reach but not our imaginations). We wish we could have that, do that, BE that, and for just a shivering second there, we do and we are. Especially if “our guy” does it! He becomes our avatar, our prosthetic body.

They’re doing it for us! We all know our lines. The players certainly do, and I don’t think they are being intentionally dishonest. When they say, “We couldn’t have done it without you, the fans,” well, there’s some truth there. The knowledge that millions watch, the emotional surge that comes with the anticipation and the roaring joy of thousands of spectators, all this heightens the experience of play and (for the gifted ones) the level of performance, too. (Or so I’ve read.) But that “zone” that we’ve all heard about athletes getting into? The most eloquent performers usually say that it’s an intensely visual place, and weirdly quiet. They don’t hear fans or much of anything. At this deep heart of the deal, although it would sound too selfish for most players to say it, they are doing it for themselves, and for their mates, and for the game itself. We’re lucky that we get to watch, but it’s a pleasant delusion that they do it for us (except when it turns vividly unpleasant, and we feel the burn of rejection that comes when the curtain gets torn and we see “the man behind the curtain”, the Wizard of Games who is pulling the business-like levers and making all those pretty lights and colors and movements for our pleasure, as well as the player trades that break our ever-adolescent hearts yet fire some sports guys’ always-feverish imaginations.)

Yes, there wouldn’t be high-level sports without the fans. This helps us to feel useful, involved, maybe even indispensable. Would Eli Manning, would Sidney Crosby, would (insert your favourite athlete here) still play if nobody came to see them? This is a good question. If your answer is ‘no’, then you have confirmed the essential role of the spectator in spectator sports. If your answer is ‘yes’, then maybe you have given a flesh wound to one of the ways we willingly fool ourselves.

We want to feel a part of something bigger. Well, duh. This is human psychology at its most obvious, maybe, but it’s worth remembering. Surely it is not just a coincidence that, as Western societies became more individualistic, as people came to feel more isolated, as religion and family and other time-honored institutions came to have weakened meaning for growing numbers of people, sport changed in the 20th century from a diversion for a few privileged people – the gentleman tennis players, the university scullers, the weekend pugilists – to an industry of massive interest and investment.

Here is a literary parallel. Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick came out after mid-century, and he used a loopy story to argue that loneliness was the greatest problem of his society. Marriage failure? It happens because without the natural support of an extended family and all those relationships, our spouse just isn’t enough people! The protagonist, Wilbur Swain, citizen of a fallen American empire, successfully runs for President on the campaign slogan “Lonesome No More!” Once elected – forgive this wacky literary digression, but it does have something to do with sports, really! – he assigns to every citizen a new middle name, composed of an object (he’s a Daffodil) and a number (he’s a “Daffodil-11”). With this creative stroke, everyone instantly has an extended family, something lost in most modern societies; every Daffodil (or Oriole) is a cousin of every other, and every Daffodil-11 (or Raspberry-19) has brothers and sisters wherever he goes! You love and help your siblings! You look out for your cousins, and share their joys and their sorrows! You are Lonesome No More! Life in the novel becomes not only tolerable but soaked with fellowship and a sense of identity. I love this novel, but the plot is a little weird, I’ll grant you that. But is it any odder than men, otherwise strangers to each other, nodding appreciatively or even bonding loudly because each wears a “Raider Nation” T-shirt or sports an eternal child’s Yankees ballcap on his head? Or for grown men to reflexively hate or even assault someone who cheers for Real Madrid when he’s a Barcelona Guy?

We can pretend that we’re not hopelessly bored. “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” said the writer, and maybe he was right. Boredom is the less interesting cousin to despair, and the marriage of television and the athletic spectacle has produced a mightily effective Boredom Killing Machine. (Not completely effective: it often needs a jolt of pornography, some peripheral gambling or a Retail Therapy apparatus in order to work well.) So whether we are desperate, depressed or just really dull guys, sports give a sense of excitement: the bands, the dancing girls (a relatively sweetish kind of porn), the breathless or reverent commentary, the odds, the fantasy leagues – and sometimes the games themselves are enough. When our jobs are boring (but we can’t walk away), our significant relationship is sinking (but it’s more comfortable than being on the prowl again), and we haven’t learned anything that truly excited us since college (or maybe since sixth grade science, or since, well, when?), games are a great diversion.

It’s a safe house for men and masculinity. It‘s a confusing time for men. This last century or so has seen the ideals and reforms of gender equality become steadily, or jarringly, more apparent and accepted. Call it “feminism” if you like; that word unfortunately seems to sum up and express the disorientation and discomfort that many men, even in the 21st century, continue to feel. Those prone to a winners-and-losers mentality – like the one sport encourages! – are more likely than most to do some hasty sociological accounting and reckon, if women are gaining and all, then we gotta be losin’, right? That sucks! More women in politics, in the universities, in the boardrooms, in all the male preserves, really, except one biggie: pro sport. A shapely, big-haired beauty with a sideline microphone might be annoying, but she’s eye candy, and the real experts are in the broadcast booth and the press box, and the players? Well, let’s see a woman try to do THAT. Or this, or any of it. Doesn’t work. Won’t happen. They can have their own leagues, men are fine with that, because someday there might be a daughter they hope will enjoy the games, too, and besides, they’re fairly easy to ignore or laugh at. (See: WNBA.)

There’s another thing that makes sport deeply meaningful to men, and that’s The Bonding Thing. (Yes, friends, it’s Man Love.) It’s uncomfortable for Real Guys to talk about – and often it requires a lot of Ironic Use of Capital Letters to even broach the subject – but the Boys Want to Be With the Boys. It might require furiously Manly Activity, strict limits on the amount or the kinds of talking that is allowed, and maybe lots of booze, too, during or after the match, but men want to be together and sport provides a good “cover”. Stick with me. “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer”, we often say, and in a time of sexual polarization, there’s pressure for “manlier” men and uber-feminine women. It sometimes seems that the men feel they must be hyper-masculine or they might have to “join the other team”, nudge, wink, chuckle. (Interestingly, it’s less true in China. There’s lots of pressure for men, but not much of this kind. Pink shirts, carrying your lady’s purse, or watching Titanic, no problem! On both sides of the sea, women are educating, progressing, hear them roar! – but North American women still seem to need Botox and breast implants and bleaching to feel female enough. It’s happening in China, too. But, those are different articles for another time.) Consider this: if you think of yourself as a sports lover, if you find that the games “mean so much”, you probably find in those games the most honest, fulfilling and meaningful encounters with other men, with The Fellas. For the pro jocks, the permissibility of bum-slaps, an arm around a shoulder, and open-field embraces is an obvious thing, and there’s nothing homo-erotic about it; it’s just a place, and thank goodness there is one, in which male affection can be expressed physically, without fear or shame. It’s not quite so easy for the fan, but it’s still a hugely welcome release for men to relax from the vigilante attitudes that arise from homophobia. (The world of athletes is, of course, itself deeply homophobic, but this seems so redundant. When we go to the games, the bars, the large-screen Man Caves, it’s like we get to wear an I.D. badge that says, No worries, gang. We’re all men here. Still, there are huge, ax-wielding goblins that warn any athlete from declaring his homosexuality.) When I was a high school jock in the ‘70s, we had our share of homophobia, yet once grade 9 was past we showered (mainly) fearlessly with our teammates in an open shower room. By the time I was coaching at my alma mater in the ‘90s and beyond, I had to give up trying to convince my players that showering after a workout was a good, healthy thing. They absolutely would not do it, even though in the new school building, each guy had his own private shower stall. I found this sad. Okay, enough sexual politics: simply put, we love sports in part because they make it easier to be with our buddies and share strong feelings with them. (Are you okay with that?)

It’s a religion. I don’t want to beat this drum too heavily. But. Salvation? Heroes? A clear representation of evil? High priests? Solemn ceremonies? Temples of shared worship? Consolation? Special language that sets the true devotee apart? Pilgrimages? Shrines? We’ve got ‘em, and more. For those who profess an actual religion, they often find that it adds a little extra-spicy devotional flavor to their involvement in sport. (Tebow-ing, anyone?) It also works the other way, as sports metaphors and tactics season many a Sunday morning.

We are born – yes, even the men! – to know and to loveThis is the greatest thing that I have ever been taught, and everything that I study and experience tells me that these drives to love and know are at the heart of being human. Howard Cosell, that great playground pontificator, used his wit and vocabulary not only to exalt athletic achievements, but also to debunk what he called “the propagated notion that sports is a sacred cow and the only milk it emits is pure”. Sure, there’s a lot that is corrupt, foolish, trivial or even destructive about sport, but for an enormous number of men in developed, comfortable nations – places where struggle is optional, and we have the leisure/luxury to dream up our challenges – athletic competition has filled a huge gap. Needs that once were met through the effort to survive, to overcome natural hazards and boundaries; meaning and consolation that once arose from religion, ritual and storytelling: these must be provided for in some way. We need objects for our inborn tendency to fall (or rise!) in love, and we are always hungry for knowledge and understanding. That’s just how it is with people. That’s how men work.

Think about the drive to KNOW, and then consider sports trivia, team histories, star biographies, the endless debates in bars, dens and factory lunchrooms. Sports generate knowledge, and guys who know what’s going on have a social advantage over those who know not. Straight up. Only, it’s not just about competition. I’m not defeating anyone, for example, at my laptop in a northeastern Chinese city, when I just have to know if the Celtics are still good (and the Raptors are still bad), or feel a burning compulsion to read about whether Bryce Harper is ready to stick on a Major League roster, or, or, or. I might rationalize to my wife’s arched eyebrow that Chinese guys are really getting into North American sport so it’s a good way to connect with my students, but she doesn’t buy it and neither do I, really. I have to know because I have known, for a long time, this brightly colored little universe. I’m not the voluminous grab-bag of jock information that I once was, but I still feel, I don’t know, relieved a little when I have found out what’s happening. And it’s so easy, a path of little or no resistance, like blocking my 12-year-old’s shot: there’s no thrill to knowing, really, but it’s a guilty bit of fun and it feels like home.

And the LOVE we feel for, with and among our games goes beyond male bonding. I love this game. I love the way he carries himself. I love the green and gold. I love his swing/stroke/balance/vision. I loved that final play. I love the way he inspired a city. I love the sound of a well-hit ball, a perfect swish, a roar of thrilled amazement. I love that frozen moment when nothing else matters. Though some might grumble to hear it expressed this way, one of the things we love in athletics is an appreciation for its beauty: it’s the same instinct that makes us gaze at a mountain peak, a cheetah in motion, a pretty woman, a magnificent building or a well-made liquor cabinet. We are hard-wired to seek out and admire beauty, and of course we are always in search of identity. Where previous generations might have identified with a war hero or a daring bandit, a movie star or a literary character, the masses of men today are more likely to take as avatar a Brady or a Rose, to find family in a shared devotion to Manchester United, les Canadiens, the Packers, the Knicks, the Sox. (Disclosure: or the Spurs/Jays/Niners/Suns/Blue Devils/Marauders/Sens…) This is love in all its colors: admiration, reverence, allegiance, identification, loyalty, tradition, giddiness, impulsivity, of course, but also fickleness, mood swings, and heartbreak. And we want to prove that love, that heart.

I’ve got heart! I’m a Royal! I used to teach ninth-graders a short story called “On the Sidewalk Bleeding”, by Evan Hunter. A sixteen-year-old kid in gang colors finds himself on the wrong end of a knife after a party, and you know where we find him as the story opens. He figures he’s fine, he runs through in his mind how it must have happened, and he feels an undeniable pride to know that he has taken one for the team. He is proud to wear his Royals jacket, and he knows that the Guardians have shed his blood because of it. He is proud of his “heart”, that tribal kinship and loyalty and specialness, but as various passersby misunderstand his situation, or understand it so well that they’re too afraid to help him, he feels his life ebbing. He wonders if he’ll ever see his girl again, and he questions his identity. He begins to see that nobody can see him when he’s wearing the gang jacket, and struggles to take it off so that he can just be Andy. To spoil a story you’ll never read anyway, he doesn’t make it, and though his girlfriend pleads for who he was personally, for her young love Andy, the investigating officer just mutters resignedly, “A Royal.” People like you and me don’t usually have our heart and identity challenged so violently. Usually, it’s just a frustrated wife or girlfriend, or maybe even a quiet nagging feeling that there was supposed to be something more to life. Anyway, nothing serious, nothing to look at here, keep moving.

And not so lofty: sometimes we love sport out of brainless one-upsmanship, a brute desire for superiority and domination of others. Michael Jordan’s father James said, “My son doesn’t have a gambling problem. What he does have is a competition problem.” Presumably this was meant to answer critics harping, at the height of his Bulls career, about MJ’s incessant betting and losing (especially on golf courses). Jordan was legendary for breaking (and, sometimes, making) teammates with his incredible work rate and endless need to dominate. His petty, snarling “guess I showed him” list in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech was shocking to many who were only familiar with his athletic elan, with his grinning or elegant advertising persona, but not to those who knew him in the heat of competition. (And as a fan of marriage and a repeat practitioner of it, I can’t help but wonder: what was it like to live with that must-win man as his wife (and ex-wife), as his sons? That OFF switch is hard to find, and it doesn’t always work anyway.) For some theorists, it’s simple: evolution has programmed us to survive, and therefore we – the males, preeminently – are “naturally aggressive”, fundamentally competitive. There is probably some truth to this, although any youth coach knows that most kids need to be taught and trained to be competitive, and even among the world’s basketball elite, Jordan was an outlier for his ferocity. On the other hand, to muck through the reader responses on a sports website is to see “my Dad’s better than your Dad” over and over again. If ever I feel a need for discouragement, an excellent way is to read grown men sniping and snarking and ridiculing each other’s love interests, be it for a team or an individual icon. It’s nauseating (except when it makes me feel superior!). What a worldwide web we weave.

And there’s more, lots more, if we want to understand and answer The Sports Guy’s basic question: why do I care SO MUCH? We can talk about Jung, the collective unconscious and male archetypes. We can describe sports as the closest that many of us can come to spirituality in a materialistic world. In the end, we all have to try to understand for ourselves this web of emotion and attachment, and ask perhaps an even more basic question: is this healthy? Does it make me a better man? Does it add flavor to my citizenship? Is it any damned GOOD? While we’re knowing and loving more and more about the gifted, usually one-dimensional men who play children’s games for fame and cash and membership in among the rarest of clubs, are we fooling ourselves that by doing so we are really sharing in their greatness? One theme that Simmons returns to often is the divide between athletes and the fans who love (and hate) them, who admire their rise (and resent them for it), who stubbornly maintain images of their essential goodness (and react with disgust when they betray less than Olympian morals). They don’t feel the way we do about sport, Simmons has written. While fans establish remote but vividly emotional relationships with athletes or with teams – “cheering for laundry”, as Jerry Seinfeld dismissively put it – the players, all the more so as sport becomes an economic beast, remember that “it’s a business”. Chris Jones wrote last fall in Grantland about “the most overused word in sports”: WE. He argued that our enjoyment of sports should always be based, if it is to be rational, on a certain distance, a distinct they-ness about our perspective.

Yeah, we did it!

WE? What are you talking about? Did you sweat, train, sacrifice? You didn’t do anything!

They’re my guys! I’ve got the home, the away, the commemorative jersey. Ever since I was a kid, I lived and died with this team!

But they don’t even know or care who you are. It has nothing to DO with you, man!

And so on. It’s Star Wars of the emotional and ethical kind, playing out the battle between our fantasy team and all the others. If I was a more pun-friendly guy, I might even call it The Fandom Menace.

So, this was my answer to Bill Simmons. These are some of the things I’ve thought about for years, but if I’m going to be honest, I haven’t even answered the question for myself, let alone for anybody else. It’s all about the heart of a slightly crazed, warrior wannabe, hoping-to-be-noble beast called The Modern Male, and no number of explanations will ever completely explain that deep and deeply contradictory place. But I tried.

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