Organized sports are an attempt, through regimentation (uniforms and trophies) and rhetoric (rah-rah boosterism and coach talk), to give an inherently pointless activity some kind of point, to inject purpose into play.
Two friends and colleagues of mine each dropped a casual comment that landed like a bombshell. Paraphrased, the comment went something like this: “The most basic distinction in music is the difference between participatory music and performance music.” This is the kind of obvious-yet-bombshell comment that, once the wreckage is cleared, troubles one for the remainder of one’s life (Thanks a lot men!). Like most other obvious-yet-bombshell observations, the comment has a life of its own, once dropped. Its applicability is not limited to music, but extends to other human endeavors also.
Unwittingly and unintentionally, I discovered another arena of the bombshell’s applicability during Lent this spring. I had never observed Lent before (though I have toyed, from time to time, with giving up my mother-in-law for Lent, but I digress ...), and still have no religious or theological reason for doing so, but I decided on a whim to give something up for forty days or so. Not desiring to belabor the matter of deciding what to give up, I elected to give up performance sports in their entirety—no March Madness, no Masters Tournament (neither of which, I believe, I had missed in over forty years), no SI.com, no ESPN, nada. The only theoretical exception would have been to observe my students performing sports live, and this exception remained only theoretical.
My first (and surprising) observation on the experiment was that it was a good deal easier than I had thought it would be—no increased heart rate or sweating, no sneaking a peek at someone else’s TV or computer, no visiting of a sports bar, etc. My second observation was that I gained about a day of week (I now observe an eight-day week, which gives me a substantial competitive advantage over those of you who observe a seven-day week, though this merely equalizes the fact that I am one-seventh as productive as most people anyway). If one watches one or two basketball games a week, “checks the score” on ESPN or Sports Illustrated online a few times daily, etc., before long it adds up to about a workday. So not only did I not experience any negative reactions (withdrawal), I experienced an unanticipated positive result—more time to do other things with my labor and leisure (in part, I memorized Tennyson’s Ulysses, which I later “read” at a poetry recital).
My third observation is the bombshell/gift that keeps on giving (or taking, depending on one’s point-of-view): Why on God’s green earth should anyone watch someone else play a game? Let me clarify that I raise no question about participatory sports, for which there have been many excellent rationales from the ancient world to the present: for example, participatory sports teach teamwork, cultivate personal fitness, and teach self-control in the face of defeat or victory. But for all the defenses of participatory sport (ancient and contemporary), has anyone attempted the bootless task of attempting to defend watching others participate in sport? How much teamwork does one develop by sitting on a couch in a room by himself watching others play baseball? How much personal health is developed by sitting on said couch? How does watching someone else win or lose cultivate equanimity in the face of defeat or victory?
Okay, perhaps that was too many rhetorical questions in sequence, but you get the point. Are there or were there ever any good arguments for observing sports, rather than for participating in them? There is, of course, the ubiquitous commercial argument (Nike makes tons of money by advertising in such venues), but that argument works equally well for the hula-hoop, the Ginsu knife, prostitution, or practicing law (not that the latter two are always easily distinguished)—hardly the kind of argument that would satisfy a philosopher. If the only justification of a behavior or product is that it makes money, then almost anything can be justified. Why not just sell cocaine?
What about the entertainment argument? Isn’t there a place in life for entertainment? Is it not proper, on some occasions, to take respite from one’s duties and labors, to enjoy some moments of reverie? Yes, yes, and yes, but none of these affirmations justifies (by itself) the behavior of watching others perform sporting activities. One is still faced with answering this question: Assuming that leisure is a valid pursuit (and I argue vigorously that it is), and that entertainment is one legitimate category of leisure, why should observing others participate in athletic activity be the chosen form of entertainment? Why not listen to a cellist? Why not read a poem or novel? Why not attend a symphony or community theatre? Why not compose haiku, or play Scrabble, or serve a meal at a soup kitchen or volunteer at the local hospital or become a Scout leader or hunt deer?
Observing others participate in athletic activities may be justifiable in the minimal sense that it is not inherently unlawful or destructive (to others, anyway). But such justification does not give it preferred status to any of the other activities mentioned above, nor does it justify the enormous amount of time so many in our culture give to it. Had I, for instance, given up listening to the cello for Lent, I would not have gained a day a week. Giving up watching sports did give me an additional day weekly (and keeps on giving—who needs the Olympics!).
I somewhat fear that I may develop the snide, holier-than-thou perspective of a recent religious convert or a new vegetarian—who out-Pharisees all the Pharisees who ever lived—but I digress. Awareness of the tendency—one hopes—may provide some prophylaxis against the tendency. On my better days, I don’t feel superior to those who observe sports; I feel as though I stole a fresh-baked cookie and didn’t get caught. I merely munch my newly-gained treasure quietly, without a cause. I leave it to Mayor Bloomberg to make the practice illegal. (How did such a wealthy, privileged person become such a Puritan? Did his mother not breastfeed him?) It is enough for me to exercise my own liberty by making other choices.
The sputtering I hear in the background is not my neighbor attempting to start his lawnmower (an event accompanied with artless cursing); the sputtering I hear is the attempted self-defense of a behavior that the vast majority commits unreflectively. Everyone does it; no one knows why.
 Louis Menand, “Glory Days,” The New Yorker, August 6, 2012, 64.