I wrote before about how sports are bad. The Giants winning the World Series reminded me of the flip side, why sports are good. I’m not a Giants fan, but I was happy for Giants fans and for the Bay Area when they won.
Hitchens is right that sports can engender tribal rivalries that lead to harmful conflict. Really, his arguments against sport are at its core the same as his arguments against religion: they lead to factions, factions lead to conflict, and conflict leads to suffering. So best we do away with both of them.
But the key point that he and other atheists miss is that humans necessarily organize themselves into tribes. Yes, throughout history, many wars have been fought over religious differences. But it’s a fallacy to think that if we eliminate religion, we’d eliminate these conflicts. Differences in religion would just be replaced by other differences – racial, ethnic, political, what have you – around which people would organize, and those differences would become the source of further conflict.
It’s the downside of the universal human need for belonging. To feel like we belong to some group, we need to marginalize those outside it. It’s regrettable, but a natural, unavoidable human tendency.
Given that humans always tend to divide along some sort of tribes, I’m of the opinion that it’s best to have tribes that at least have the potential to cross other lines. Being a Christian, I naturally think Christianity is the best tribe, since it can cross any boundary and inclusivity is built into the faith, with a dream of every tribe and tongue gathering under the common banner of Christ.
But other little things matter also, and that’s where I think sports is important. At its best, sports cuts across societal lines and brings a community together. I saw that happen with the Giants win.
There’s so precious little in this world that can do that. Nowadays, everything is fractured. There used to be a mass market; now everything is a niche. In the old days, there were far fewer media outlets, and everyone saw them. With television, there were just 3 network TV channels, with maybe a handful more local channels in an area. An advertiser who put a spot on network TV could reasonably expect to have that ad show to a wide swath of people.
That’s now dead. With the explosion of niche TV channels, entertainment choices, and Internet sites, there’s now a plethora (SN. plethora doesn’t mean what I thought. I thought it meant plenty, in a good way. Turns out it actually means overabundance, a negative) of options, so everyone can watch whatever suits their specific interests. Even network TV is more fractured; you hear about shows targeting specific demographics all the time. So now instead of a mass market, more and more we now have a bunch of separate niche markets.
This is usually presented as good. The animal lover can finally see shows about animals 24/7. The foodie can watch cooking shows all day long. But I think it’s bad. People used to be able to talk to each other around the water cooler about something that was on network TV the night prior. An inane subject of conversation, but it was something. We have that superficial commonality less and less. Now, people literally can’t relate to each other. Gamers use their weirdo gamer-speak with each other; no one else gets it. Sports people watch ESPN all day. Travel junkies watch the Travel Channel. Spanish-speakers watch Spanish shows (SN. The top 10 highly rated shows in L.A. each week are always dominated by Spanish language shows. That’s crazy). Everyone has their niche activity they’re into and there’s less of a universal, common experience.
I think it has negative effects on society. As one example, I think the political left and right literally don’t understand each other anymore. They’re so insulated to their own way of thinking (e.g. with tilted media sources like MSNBC or Fox News that didn’t exist before) that they can’t honestly conceive of how another viewpoint could be right.
Sports is one of those few things that cuts across many lines. At the Giants victory parade, there were old people, there were young people, there were rich people, there were poor people, there were all sorts of ethnicities. What else can bring together so many disparate parts of a community like that?
Which is another thing Hitchens doesn’t understand about sports. When we root for a sports team, we’re not just rooting for the team. In fact, that’s not even what we’re primarily rooting for. Rather, we’re rooting for a community that’s centered around the team. At least in America. That’s why we name our teams after regions. It’s why sports fandom is strongest where the sense of community among the fans (e.g. west Texas high school football) is strongest. It’s why fans use the word “we” when talking about their teams. It’s why Americans value sports loyalty so much – it’s not about loyalty to the team, it’s about loyalty to the community of fans. And it’s why a community can so wholeheartedly celebrate when its team wins. If you simply see sports as professional teams, the American sports experience literally makes no sense. But when you see that they represent a community, it makes all the sense in the world.
There are many bad things that come out of sports. But there are many good things also. And its ability to bring a community together may be the most important one. The Giants victory reminded me of that.
Too bad I’m a Reds fan and couldn’t relate at all.