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Friday, April 20, 2018

Is Sport the New Opium of the People?

The recent passing of Erin Popovich, wife of the San Antonio Spurs' head coach, Gregg Popovich, has led many to remark that it puts the game of basketball (and other sports) in perspective. As the Mercury News sports writer, Dieter Kuertenbach, observed ("‘Bigger than basketball’ — Erin Popovich’s death puts the game in perspective for the Spurs, Warriors"):
Sports are an escape, a distraction, and, for us lucky ones, profession. Sports might be a prism into the human condition, but the ballgames are inherently unimportant.
At the same time, the sporting world has so many layers and wrinkles — so much hype and exposure — that it’s easy to become entangled. At this juncture in the season, playoff time, it’s easier than ever to find yourself in that web — to think that the game is bigger than anything else.
But it isn’t.
Unfortunately, for some, it is. Some take sports way too seriously, not just in the U.S., but everywhere. In fact, the British literary critic, Terry Eagleton, has remarked that as traditional sources of "meaning" in the UK have declined, people are increasingly identifying with their favorite football (soccer) teams and putting the "fanatic" back into "fan."
In our own time, one of the most popular, influential branches of the culture industry is unquestionably sport. If you were to ask what provides some meaning of life nowadays for a great many people, especially men, you could do worse than reply 'Football'. Not many of them, perhaps, would be willing to admit as much; but sport, and in Britain football in particular, stands in for all those noble causes - religious faith, national sovereignty, personal honour, ethnic identity - for which, over the centuries, people have been prepared to go to their deaths. Sport involves tribal loyalties and rivalries, symbolic rituals, fabulous legends, iconic heroes, epic battles, aesthetic beauty, physical fulfilment, intellectual satisfaction, sublime spectators, and a profound sense of belonging. It also provides human solidarity and physical immediacy which television does not. Without these values, a good many lives would no doubt be pretty empty. It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people. (The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, p. 26)
As someone who has played a lot of sports and still loves to watch the Giants, Warriors, and Niners, I wish I could disagree with Eagleton, but I can't. In so doing, I'm not thinking of those fans who like watch their favorite sports teams play, either on TV or at the ballpark, but rather about those who turn on ESPN to watch programs like the college combine, the NFL draft, and (just yesterday) the unveiling of next year's schedules for NFL teams. Really? The unveiling of next season's schedule is must-see TV? Obviously, enough people watch these shows (and shows like them) so that it's worth ESPN's time and money to broadcast them. I'd like to think folks had better things to do. Evidently, some do not.

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