For the most part, I think we all love one or another competitive sport: the exhilaration, the challenge, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. We can’t seem to live without it. While most of us don’t engage regularly in a competitive sport, especially at the level of excellence we see in college or professional sports, we all still live vicariously through those who do. We’ve had to endure months without these sports, and a palpable hunger and loss was felt by almost everyone! And their return has been a source of great relief and celebration.
Competitive sports have been an important part of the human experience since the first caveman clubbing extravaganza. But while on the surface they seem to be about excitement, nobility, and just plain fun, there may be a dark side as well. Part of our DNA seems to be engineered for tribalism, the idea of loyalty to one’s social, religious, or even ethnic group. This too may be innocent, and an efficient way to improve survival: Strength in numbers, for example.
Competitive sports has, throughout history, been used to channel this tribal instinct into less destructive and costly behaviors. Whether teams or individuals are involved, the idea is to gather opposing “tribes” together and have a proxy conflict represented by a “chosen one” who, with their victory, would settle any standing dispute. Take, for example, David and Goliath. The Israelites and the Philistines, two tribal peoples on the brink of war, agreed that each would present a champion who would fight or compete to settle the dispute. We all know how that ended. Yikes!
Look at the Roman gladiator games. People throughout the empire, especially the plebs (that’s us), were seduced to channel their grievances toward the battling opponents, one of whom was their champion. Win or lose, they would leave satisfied that justice had been done. Or at least that’s what the Emperor hoped!
And the list goes on: the original Greek Olympic games, particularly the Pentathlon, Jousting tournaments in medieval times, and “Patolli” or “Ullamalitzli” by the Aztecs were all competitive sports used to unite or control disparate interests and tribes within a city, country, or kingdom. One reason for resurrecting the Olympic games in modern times was to unite countries in a peaceful and friendly competitive environment, hoping it would lead to a better understanding between people and maybe reduce war.
Certainly in America, the channeling has, for the most part, worked. I mean, in college sports, Wolverines hate Buckeyes, Bruins hate Trojans, and everybody hates Alabama (only because they’re so damned good!). In professional sports, it’s the same, whether it’s Dolphins/Bills, Giants/Cowboys, Blackhawks/Wild, Dodgers/Yankees, Bulls/Pistons, or Manchester United/Liverpool (I think that’s soccer!). The potential tribal catastrophe is generally channeled into good, safe name-calling. After the games are over, we go back to working and playing with those same rival tribes!
But, there is a potentially more sinister side.
Remember the movie Rollerball with James Caan? Not the remake, which sucked.
This was a movie about a society that had been taken over by Corporations–no governments, no countries. And Rollerball was the game to distract people from the fact that their lives were being completely controlled. And no Rollerball athlete was allowed to play too long lest he become a symbol of independence, or an icon to be followed. And as Jonathon E, the main character, became more popular, the rules of the game became more violent and deadly in hopes of defeating him.
The ancient Roman poet Juvenal wrote:
Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob
That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,
Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only, Bread and circuses.Juvenal in Satire X
In other words, give a person a full stomach and diversionary entertainment, and they will let you do whatever you want. Emperors, Kings, Dictators, and a fair share of politicians have used this idea successfully over the course of human history. That was the reason for those gladiator games and the jousting tournaments: distraction!
Obviously in Roman times, and even in more recent centuries, more people were less educated and had very few options for staying aware of the state of the world. We, of course, have the opposite. A much larger segment of the population is educated, and we are inundated with news, opinions (like mine!), and stories that can often be overwhelming. And so we seek diversion!
So what’s the point? I love sports, especially college football and am glad that it has returned. It is a good distraction from the stresses of everyday life. But, not to the point that I lose sight of things going on in the world, and I think that’s the point. Channeling tribalism through sport is a uniquely human invention that saves lives and allows progress. Using sports as an enjoying diversion from our daily lives is a blessing. But, let’s heed the words of our long-dead friend Juvenal. Let’s pay attention to our world and not get distracted until we want to be. If that happens, competitive sports will be what we all want it to be: just good fun!