Why Are Sports Important?

What really makes a big game so compelling?

Posted Feb 05, 2012

Baseball season is on the horizon, but what brings us to be so interested in a few dozen wealthy young athletes showing their capabilities?

Sports draw us in for many reasons, the elegance, the competition, the history, our identification with great athleticism (we may not be able to do it, but they sure can!), a coming together of community in a shared story etc. In a world that is losing its legitimacy; professional sports are essentially sane and fair.

Let’s look at the value of games and play.

Johan Huizinga in his seminal book, Homo Ludens argues that human beings are truly unique, not because we think or have language, but because we have the capacity for play. 

Hunziger tell us that play is everywhere.  And he doesn’t see play simply as little kids putting some blocks together and knocking them down; or, for that matter, hitting a grand slam in the last inning. He interprets play as something truly important in the grand scheme of things.  When you have rules that are inviolate and people accept and operate within those rules, magic can emerge.  It’s among the sweetest things that human beings can do.

Now, let’s look at this a little more carefully. 

Who is the most powerful person on the field? It's the umpire.

(The umpire can go by another title depending on the sport.)   

The ref’s role is to run back and forth in the background, deciding what’s fair and what’s foul. If the referee stops functioning, and the rules no longer count – everything falls apart.

Without the rules, there’s no meaningful game.  That’s why football, for instance, is filled with procedure - and while a coach is permitted to occasionally “challenge” a call, the referees have an organized way to review those challenges. And once a decision is made – it’s over. This past season, San Francisco was unhappy about an “early whistle,” but that’s old news. There’s no more appeal. The referees did the best that they could - the call stands and the game goes on.

In baseball, there are three outs per innning, three strikes per at bat, twenty seven outs in a regulation game and four balls generates a walk. Baseball is the "game of inches" with fair and foul defining the ballpark. But it is the umpire who makes the final call. A manger can argue, but if he is too aggressive, he's tossed out. And, no one can eject the umpire. Rules upon rules defines baseball.

And in the game of football, there are fifteen minutes to each quarter, no more and no less.  There’s no more than four downs permitted to continue your teams’ possession and get another four downs allotted to you. Ten yards are required for a first down and no movement is allowed on the line of scrimmage by the offensive line prior to the snap. A receiver must have two feet inbounds after controlling the catch – and these regulations go on and on. The referee is the final arbiter in all of these matters.

Yet, within these rules there's magic - the magic of men competing at the highest level.

How suspensful would a game be if coaches were allowed to ask for more time when the game is close? How heroic would a huge comeback feel if it weren't for the rules and time constraints?

It’s the fact that limitations exist – and are adhered to – that makes the magic of sports come alive.

Hunziger brilliantly understood that there’s a microcosm and macrocosm to everything; that the drama of these games mirrors the drama of our lives. 

So when professional athletes cheat they ruin the magic and the game loses meaning.  This is why Barry Bonds is not respected in the game of baseball (we pray that the steroid scandals of the past are over - they hurt the game). Gambling is why the great Pete Rose is having trouble getting into the Hall of Fame. And, in football, that is why Bill Belichick, despite being a truly great coach, is tarnished by a cheating scandal. Our athletes and coaches are just people, but the games can’t be fixed. Then who would really care?

Why is it so important to me? Because in a society that works, nobody is truly above the rules. It doesn’t mean that people don’t make mistakes, that people don’t live secret lives, that there aren’t all kinds of ways to break rules but, overall, the rules create a meaning, a sense of fairness and even, magic in our lives.

When the head of Goldman Sachs or Citibank takes home millions in salary and bonuses after watching his company lose much of its value, and then get bailed out by the government – that’s the breaking of rules.

When clergy become child abusers and then the whole matter is covered up in order to protect a religious institution – that’s breaking the rules.

When a wife or husband "win" in a divorce because they hired a meaner matrimonial attorney and the children are hurt along the way. This is breaking the rules.

And, when the average guy on the street believes that connections and money are required in order to get a good education, go to a good college and a find a good job - that’s also breaking the rules.

Rules count and when they are wantonly broken we stop believing. And that is sad.  But more importantly, the game stops working for us.  In America, Major League Baseball and NFL Football work because, more or less, we believe that they are fair. The refs (or umps) are in control.

These warriors are like us in a way. We all go to work and raise kids or deal with life. And it doesn’t always go easily. You may have to go to work after having a fight with your husband or help the second grade teacher with a class project while you worry if your teenager is smoking pot. We are often wounded warriors and the game touches us – because we can also identify. We unconsciously see the best of ourselves in this simple game that has grown so big.

But, as a society, let’s remember that we want the magic back in our normal lives as well; even a flawed magic.  When we break our “sacred” rules of fair and foul, whether the culprits are politicians, baseball players, businessmen or an outraged dad on the little league ball field, we all lose.

When we break the rules too often, we break the magic of our great society.

I hope the politicians are listening.

The Intelligent Divorce book series, online course , newsletter and radio show is a step by step program to handling divorce with sanity - from raising healthy kids to dealing with an impossible ex.

Mark Robert Banschick, MD

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