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Sports and the Logic of Entertainment

Sports and Entertainment don't always mix

When I first started to watch my daughter play in competitive sports matches, I discovered something that most normal humans probably already knew: it's almost as much fun to watch your child play a sport as it is to play yourself. Since I've studied engagement with play and games, I have a confident guess about why this is so: We can gain tremendous enjoyment from being a sports spectator for some of the same reasons we enjoy fictions in books and in movies: Our extraordinary skills for imitation allow us to adopt a perspective within the situation we are observing and to think and feel from that perspective.

Oftentimes we are pulled into games and stories by means of our identification with a player or character. Remarkably, a person who is deeply engaged in this way will almost feel the dangers and triumphs and frustrations experienced by a story's (or a game's) hero as his or her own. This sort of identification is especially powerful when one of the heroes out there is little junior. But one can see the same thing among sports fans in general: they take the successes and failures of the home team as their own (just listen to how people talk, "we're ahead 6-3").

As one who loves watching sports-whether or not my child is out there-I now have to tell you something I wish wasn't true. Sports spectatorship is an excellent example of what I call "the logic of entertainment." By this term I refer to the fact that, in many areas of contemporary life, we can observe an increasing pressure for institutions and practices to become more entertaining or else disappear. I have written, for example, about how students in my college classes expect me to provide entertaining lectures, and the most popular teachers are often those who can combine their subject matter with an entertaining style of presentation. I suppose there's nothing wrong with an entertaining teacher, but there may well be something wrong with an otherwise competent teacher who is let go because he or she is not entertaining and therefore attracts low enrollments.

These days we spend billions of dollars to provide high quality spectator sports, from elite athletes with contracts of hundreds of millions of dollars to children whose parents pay thousands worth dollars per season so that they can engage in highly competitive "travel teams." In itself this wouldn't be especially troubling, but just like with my college professor example, there's an enormous downside to the excitement about elite athletics. This is that our system is increasingly oriented to producing elite athletes who can entertain us rather than providing sports opportunities for the majority of not particularly talented folks (like me). So, cities pass bond measures for one and a half-billion dollar sports arenas, but cut funding for parks and playgrounds. So, even at very young ages, kids are cut from school teams because there are only enough resources to focus on the most promising athletes. So, gym classes and intramurals are victims of budget cuts.

The same phenomenon can be observed in many areas of contemporary life: Entertainment can be fun and exciting, there's nothing wrong with that. But when entertainment becomes the only thing we care about, it's time to do some serious cultural soul-searching.

For more information, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo by Moazzam Brohi.

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