Today I’m writing about sports instead of writing about war. Except, in an odd mirror, they’re the same.
Anyone who knows me or reads me knows I love sports. I have a scale, of course: basketball’s at the top, everything else is below that, starting from baseball and working down to American football, which I hate, and golf ditto — but I hate them in a way only a sports lover can hate a sport. Some sports bore me, e.g. tennis, though I admire the physicality of great players. I won’t write in this post about all that, because, for example, I can go on a golf rant, or a football one, and/or talk about my difficult relationship with my father and how baseball was, when I was a kid, one of the few things we managed to enjoy together (and alone; none of my sibs cared) but those are all long essays and for another time. What I want to do now is talk about sport and tribalism.
I’ve said we’re hard-wired to hate. I was called out on that, and I reconsidered, and now I think maybe we’re hard-wired to be able to hate. One of the purposes of sports is to direct that readily-available hostility, which is hard to eliminate, into something that doesn’t matter. Non-sports-lovers ask me sometimes why I care so much about the Knicks that I sit here alone in my living room shouting at the TV when Julius Randle misses a free throw. It doesn’t matter, they say. No, and that’s the point.
If you listen to the language of the sportscasters you can hear it. Warriors, fighters, heroes, dominating, destroying, defeating. If you watch sports you can see it: impressive human bodies (or, as in the marathon after the elite runners come in, not-so-impressive human bodies) going up against each other and giving their all. And I can give mine, too, yelling encouragement at the marathon — I was there for two hours last weekend, just clapping and cheering for strangers — and sitting on my couch shouting about those free throws, or booing when my team’s called for a foul (because after all, we’re the good guys, we never foul).
Then when it’s over, everyone goes home.
The point of sports is to channel our bloodlust into events that don’t decimate the species. I don’t just love basketball, I play it, rather badly but as well as I can. While I’m playing I’m determined to help My Guys defeat Those Other Evil Guys. We all play as though something were at stake — land, riches, entry to heaven.
Then when it’s over, everyone goes home. Next week we make up the teams differently and My Guys are once more the good guys, even if last week they played for T.O.E.G.
The war in the middle east does matter, of course, as does the one in Ukraine. These wars are over land, and riches, and, in the minds of some, entry to heaven. They don’t mix up the teams and a lot of people are never going home. But suddenly, watching the marathon, I was filled with hope. We — no one in particular, everyone — have figured out at least one way to redirect that ability to hate, that volcanic burst of emotion. A way to turn it, at least neutral, and often positive. Maybe, once we really understand how much we need to, we can come up with others.