Why do people care about sport?

by Emrys Westacott

Why do people care about sport? With hundreds of millions of human beings (myself included) obsessively following the world cup that is being played out in Russia, it’s a good time to reflect once again on this perennially interesting question.

Of course, it’s also true that hundreds of millions don’t give a damn about sport. I know the type: I’m closely related to a disproportionate number of them. To these people, the passion aroused by twenty-two men in shorts trying to force a ball between two sticks is a great mystery, and not something they find it easy to respect. In their view, even if they don’t say this out loud, getting all worked up over a soccer match is a) dumb, and b) good evidence that one needs to get a life. And they may be right. But that still leaves the phenomenon of sport-induced passion unexplained.

Since it is arguably the sporting event that occasions the most consuming passions, let’s focus on the world cup (although many of the points made will naturally apply to other sports also). And let’s distinguish, at the outset, between enjoyment and passion.

Why is soccer entertaining?

It isn’t so hard to understand why soccer provides enjoyable entertainment. First, and most obviously, a good match is dramatic; it has a compelling narrative. But unlike a play or a film, it is unscripted, which means the outcome is not determined in advance, and that makes a game genuinely exciting.

A second, reason, related to the first, is the fact that the players will exhibit extreme emotion: ecstasy when they score; despair when they face defeat; distress when they make a costly error. We like to witness such emotions on the field, just as we enjoy seeing them on the stage or the screen. And in the case of anguish, our enjoyment is made possible by the fact that what we are seeing is, after all, only a play, only a film, or only a game. If a character in a play has his eyes gouged out, we are appalled–but not really; not the way we would be if we witnessed a genuine gouging. Somewhat analogously, if a player sinks to his knees after missing a crucial penalty, we might feel sorry for his emotional anguish, which is undoubtedly real. But our sympathy is qualitatively different from what we feel when we see, say, someone distraught over the loss of a loved one. And the difference isn’t due solely to the difference in the depth of the anguish felt by the person in despair. It also relates to our awareness that the penalty miss really isn’t that important. Afterwards, unlike a real tragedy, it can even become an occasion for humour.

Third, soccer has a pronounced aesthetic dimension. This can obviously be said of other sports too, but (in my perfectly objective and unbiased opinion) it is appropriate that of all sports, soccer is the one known, in the phrase popularized by Pele, as “the beautiful game.” The scale of the pitch, the ease with which we can observe what is happening, the flowing quality of the play when at its best, the combination of athleticism, strength, virtuosic skill, and teamwork, as well as the infinite variety of ways in which goals can be scored, all contribute to the aesthetic pleasure that the game can yield.

Fourth, again like other sports, soccer has a moral dimension which adds to the drama and gives us pleasure. We enjoy seeing individuals and teams performing heroically, demonstrating resilience, overcoming adversity, rising to the occasion, fulfilling their potential. They may not be doing this on a battlefield, where lives are at stake and great causes are at issue. But that doesn’t alter the fact that genuine, morally admirable qualities of character may be called for and displayed.

Fifth, we take pleasure in seeing something done supremely well, with the sort of expertise and virtuosity made possible by innate talent and dedicated practice. Watching someone like Lionel Messi ply his trade is akin to admiring the work of a superior craftsman.

Finally, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that when we watch professional soccer we are watching superbly conditioned young athletes demonstrating their physical prowess. Such men are sexy. There’s even a reasonable chance that some of them will go topless either during or after the game (although this spectacle is admittedly rather tame compared to the nude wrestling enjoyed by the ancient Greeks).

Which is better: emotional roller coaster or detached appreciation?

For all these reasons, people enjoy watching soccer, and they can enjoy it even if they don’t support either of the teams playing. But of course, if we are highly partisan, if we really care about the result, our experience of the game, and the sort of enjoyment we derive from it, is very different. Immanuel Kant argued that unlike most kinds of pleasure, aesthetic pleasure is essentially disinterested. If that is true, the pleasures of fandom can be considered anti-aesthetic–a point borne out by the fact that for many serious fans, winning ugly with a scrappy fluke of a goal is preferable to losing after a fine display of beautiful football.

Which kind of experience is preferable: the partisan roller coaster with the likelihood of grave disappointment in the end, or the relatively detached appreciation of the connoisseur? You sometimes hear fans say that they prefer the latter. I’ve heard England supporters, for instance, say that they can only really settle down and enjoy the world cup after their hopes have once again been dashed and England are eliminated. But they don’t really mean it. The truth is that watching a game is infinitely more engaging and meaningful if you care about the result. Why? Because passion itself is something we value. Living passionately means living more intensely. Better to fall in love and risk suffering than to be a mere connoisseur of other people’s charms.

It’s no exaggeration to say that for some football is the primary source of passion in their lives. In Fever Pitch, his account of what it’s like to be a serious Arsenal fan, Nick Hornby argues, quite plausibly, that no other joy, not even the joy of sex, exceeds the ecstasy felt on seeing his team score a championship-winning goal. The question remains, though: just why do people get so worked up over a game of football?

Why does the world cup produce so much passion?

Like the question about why people enjoy watching soccer, this question invites several answers.

Supporting a team gives one an identity. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, the solidity of a fixed identity is something we all crave: it relieves us of the anxiety we feel on account of being always free to overturn our earlier choices. People can secure an identity for themselves in all sorts of ways: e.g. on the basis of family, religion, race, nationality, a profession, a hobby, or a political cause. Supporting a sports team is one of these ways, one that has perhaps become more important as other sources of identity, such as religion, have diminished.

The identity that supporting a team confers is closely bound up with the fact that one belongs to a well-defined group, sharply distinguished from–often in opposition to–other such groups. Fans form a community and enjoy a very strong sense of belonging to that community. This is why millions who can’t be at the actual world cup still like to watch their teams on screens set up in public places, cheering and groaning in unison with their compatriots. Here, too, the communities established by sports have partly filled a void created by the weakening of other communal ties. In All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly argue that in the modern world, sporting events are one of the places that people are most likely to experience the kind of loss of self in the crowd that used to characterize Dionysian revels.

These points about identity and belonging hold for sports teams in general. They apply across different sports and at many levels. But there is something special about sporting contests involving national teams. The sense of identity and community experienced by the fans feels less arbitrary, grounded as it is in a common language, history, and culture. The connection between players and fans is also different from that which obtains at the club level. For the most part, club footballers are hired mercenaries. If another team were to offer them more money, and they believed they had more chance of success with that other team, they would quite likely switch their allegiance. This happens all the time nowadays and is considered unexceptional. So the sense in which a club player “represents” a club or a city is tenuous. If they are good enough, chances are they will soon move on, unless the club happens to be an elite outfit like Real Madrid or Manchester United. And the fans who applaud their skills this season will boo their every touch next season.

Where a national team is concerned, though, things are different. Here, players don’t generally choose their team. Their nationality is, so to speak, their fate, and one that they share with the fans. So their representative function is much more pronounced. Of course, individuals can also represent a country, as they do in the Olympics. It is noteworthy, though, that the passions that accompany the success or failure of individuals are generally much tamer than those aroused by national teams. Thousands don’t cheer wildly at public screenings of an Olympic event or a tennis tournament. Failure does not provoke tabloid headlines that speak of “Disgrace!” or “Humiliation!” and call for heads to roll.

Sporting events involving their national teams matter to people because these encounters are often a proxy for other, more important contests. A classic example of this was Argentina’s victory over England in the quarter final of the 1986 world cup, just four years after their defeat in the Falklands War. Many of the teams competing at the world cup represent countries that are relatively small fry in world affairs, or that believe themselves to deserve greater recognition than they typically receive from the rest of the world, particularly from the global elite. Brazil, for instance, still does not punch its weight in the economic and diplomatic spheres; but soccer is one area in which it can, and often does, succeed brilliantly.

In every world cup, there are invariably games where David goes up against, and sometimes defeats, Goliath. When this happens, much more can be at stake than a mere football match. The passion experienced may be informed and inflamed by a long-standing history of slights, injuries, scorn, oppression and resentment. Hence Bill Shankley’s famous observation that while some people view football as a matter of life and death, it’s really much important than that.

by Emrys Westacott

The world cup thus constitutes a perfect storm of passion-inducers: dramatic entertainment, deep-rooted identity, community membership, and national pride. Critics will still argue that the passions involved are out of proportion to the actual importance of the cause. People want to experience passion, they’ll say, but they don’t have the spiritual depth or resources to feel passionate about grander matters such as truth, beauty, justice or freedom. So they lose themselves in something essentially trivial but safe.

The critics no doubt have a point. But we should perhaps be more sympathetic to the fans. For one other important aspect of watching a game, which holds for both partisan supporter and connoisseur (although obviously more for the former), is the temporary narrowing of one’s attention. For a short while, life becomes simple. Only one thing matters–the game. Yes, there are more important things to care about in life. But when the headlines every morning are so relentlessly depressing, one occasionally needs a breather. And what could be more cathartic than spending two hours hurling abuse at cheating opponents and blind referees?