Thursday, March 26, 2009

Scholar Disapproves of the Manner in Which You Spend Your Leisure Time

All those hours you spent watching Ryno and the Cubbies on WGN, or Fergie Oliver and Don Chevrier on Labatt Blue Jays Baseball, were not only wasted hours, but they prove you’re an idiot.

“Sports fans,” writes David P. Barash, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, “may simply be the comic sidekicks of nationalists.”


Mr. Barash seems certain that the impulse to watch others engage in sport is an evolutionary remnant of the very real notion of safety in numbers, but that a truly evolved human being, a civilized person, has no need to engage in such nonsense. So if you do it, you’re a Neanderthal. This is basically Mr. Barash’s take on things. Or, to cite his example, you are essentially on par, intellectually, with an oystercatcher.

It’s supremely tempting to place the nub, the locus of Mr. Barash’s argument in the schoolyard, to call it the residual animosity of a 98 lb weakling habitually victimized by bigger, more agile, more sports-oriented boys. It is, we might reason, the classic nerd-vs-jock tension, and in that scenario this article – published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, no less – is his grand revenge. By debunking the ridiculous myth of spectator sports, he’s pointing out the absurdity of the very core of those bullies’ beings. As I say, it’s tempting to do that, but I’ll abstain (or did I just go ahead and do it anyway?). I will hasten to add that he does take pains to point out that it is not the act of sport that irks him or seems to him pointless, but the act of watching others do it:

Thanks to spectator sports, each of us can know fame for most of our lives, so long as we are satisfied with the ever-shifting, warmed-over shadow of someone else's.

Do you see the problem here? A straight line from that reasoning leads to this: why watch the play when you could write it or act in it yourself? Why read the book when you could write it instead?

It’s also worth noting, according to Mr. Barash, that professional athletes are, by and large, louts. Gamblers, womanizers, cheats. To that I say this: Hate the artist, love the art. I dig me some Miles Davis. Does the fact that he was known to treat women like punching bags diminish the power of Filles de Kilimanjaro? Or his heroin habit; does it negate the beauty of In a Silent Way? Do VS Naipaul’s less-than-exemplary personal habits obscure the literary merit of a book like A Bend in the River?

Well, likewise Pete Rose.

But the soft, indefensible heart of his argument, the creamy centre of his ultimately bitter concoction, the most jagged clavicle nestled among his many bones of contention, is this. Are you are ready for it? Instead of wasting your time watching sports, Mr. Barash posits,

You might try reading a book, talking with your family, going for a walk, wrestling with the dog, listening to some music, smelling a flower, making love…

Germane points, all. But here’s the thing, Mr. Barash: I do all of those things. Every damn last one of them, and I expect I’m not the only sports fan who does. Because sports fans are not cardboard cut-outs, they’re not two-dimensional space fillers, and they’re not simple-minded rubes devoid of attention spans who would rather suckle at the mollifying teat of The Great Distraction than actually question, engage with or otherwise give a damn about the world, any more than academics are.

I read (and write!). I walk. I wrestle with (and get bitten by) the family dog. I’m obsessive about music, from punk to jazz to, yes, even classical. I garden. I have sired a child in blessed wedlock. I even like theatre, especially if written by the man probably not pictured here (and for the record, though I do love a good conspiracy theory, I’m a Stratfordian).

And I also love sports. Love them. Baseball in particular, but sports in general. I love watching sports for a number of very visceral reasons – the motion! the colour! the noise! I know that when I turn on a game, or go to see one in person, I’m going to see a sequence of events that are both unpredictable and unique, and that’s a rare thing. Sport is not merely the rehearsed movement of automatons, but a human drama; to watch a game is to find yourself in the presence of genuine narrative, the intertwining of untold number of stories, like a vast social history being enacted on a playing field. Read David Maraniss’ biography of Roberto Clemente, or the stories of Ring Lardner, or You Gotta Have Wa, Robert Whiting’s look at Japanese baseball, and try to tell me that there’s nothing more involved than a “children’s game.” Sport is an intersection of humanity, at once a communal celebration and an individual test.

I am also drawn to watching sport, I think, for a lot of the same reasons I love to read literature, to listen to music and to watch films, and to engage in any number of other manifestations of humanity’s fondness for (and utter need of) the arts, and that is the pleasure I garner from watching individuals succeed utterly, to watch someone push the limits of what it is possible to do with the human body.

It’s rare that a scholarly article gets my back up like this one did, but Mr. Barash’s argument seems untenable, paper-thin, reactionary. All of us move in several circles during the coarse of the day, and at times you find yourself in the company of those who you know don’t share your passion for sports, and if you’re like me you wonder what it would take to convince these people of the merits of spectatorship. I’m grateful for the chance to carefully consider the question, so I guess I owe the author thanks for that. But I can’t help but feel that the argument which inspired this post wasn’t so much carefully considered as it was spit out. The genteel forum doesn’t alter the fact that David Barash felt something in his gut and then went about constructing a spurious (and almost spiteful) argument to support it. It's fine if you're not a fan. I support that. But don't ridicule fandom because you don't understand what it means to love to watch.


  • Oil Can Boyd, 49, wants to pitch in Ottawa? I think that’s amazing, and perfectly harmonious with the amicably hucksterish tone that low-level minor league ball should strive to attain. Seek the balance between competitiveness and fun. I know I’ll try to make it to the park for one of his starts.
  • Oh, Tao. As if I didn’t love you enough already, now you go and tell of your fondness for Joe Pernice? I am, truth be told, a tad obsessive about Pernice, the Scud Mountain Boys, Chappaquiddick Skyline, the Pernice Bros., and just about everything else he’s had his hand in. I already dug the Friday Rock Out feature, but then you go and do this? If I weren’t already married… And straight…
  • One of the upsides to the Griffey signing for the Mariners is one I hadn’t considered: his elder statesman persona taking the pressure off of Ichiro to be the presumed leader of the team, and putting to rest all that clubhouse chatter from last season. This might just work out after all. Does Ichiro do the things necessary to win? If you mean being a leadoff hitter who collects 200 hits every year and plays stellar defense too, then yes. If you mean giving rousing locker room speeches or coddling the youngsters, then I guess he totally does suck. Now Junior can give the speeches.

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