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Ethan Gilsdorf: Sports allow us to express our tribal tendencies and blow off steam, in a safe way. In this photo, Boston Red Sox fans show their support during the Red Sox's World Series Championship parade, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2004. (Chitose Suzuki/AP)

In a final decisive battle, the Blackhawks defeated our Great Brown Bears. And lo, we did lament. Then, the forces of the Navy (aka “the Clippers”) and the nasty Nets who hail from Brooklyn ensnared our most fearsome warriors and generals, who formerly wore Green with pride on our parquet battlefield.

But there is hope! For at the half-way point in our Red Stockings’ annual 162 Days War against 30 foes, we now dominate our Kingdom of the East. And we, from the land of Bostonia, gloat over the misfortune of our fiercest rival, the evil pin-striped Ones. We revel in their fourth place ranking. We jeer and toss popped corn and empty flagons of beer in their direction when they visit our homeland.

How else can we exercise, or exorcise, what sociologist Norbert Elias called the “controlled decontrolling of emotion”?

There’s a reason why professional sports matter, and why they are an enduring and powerful cultural institution. Sports allow us to express our tribal tendencies and blow off steam, in a safe way.

This weekend’s Red Sox-Yankees series at Fenway was but one example of how sports — hockey, basketball, baseball, football, soccer, curling — are essentially abstracted war games. Our teams — the Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots, Revolution, do we have a curling team? — are our tribes. The battles the players fight on behalf of fans have roots as deep as the Romans’ gladiatorial combats.

How else can we exercise, or exorcise, what sociologist Norbert Elias called the “controlled decontrolling of emotion”? Sports let us civilized folk release dangerous and spontaneous emotional urges, from, “Yankees Suck” to “I’m gonna kill Derek Jeter.” By becoming emotionally attached to an abstracted conflict, we peasants don’t need to wage real war. We’re happy to watch instead. Or to play in beer-fueled softball leagues.

Players don uniforms just like soldiers do. Bats and hockey sticks may as well be cudgels and long-swords. As the points rack up, they become a kind of theoretical body count. Played on highly manicured battlefields, American football is an especially obvious stand-in for combat and conquest: Players charge like infantry to gain more ground. According to Sal Paolantonio, in his book “How Football Explains America,” “The creation of the first down simply mirrored the nation’s quest for territory.” It’s war, but (torn rotator cuffs aside) harmless war.

The author pictured at Fenway Park, Sunday, July 21. (Courtesy)

The author pictured at Fenway Park, Sunday, July 21. (Courtesy)

The metaphor can extended to trades and leadership changes. When the Celtics send a prized soldier — like Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett — to one of our adversaries, or when a leader — like Doc Rivers — leaves for greener pastures in far-away lands, locals cry, “Traitor!” or “Benedict Arnold!” Sensible fans see these trades as necessary shifts in power, inevitable in any longstanding campaign. Just as in days of yore, teams must expand the gene pool of heroes, and  intermarry to refresh their ranks.

In his book “The Meaning Of Sports,” Michael Mandelbaum writes that sports and organized religion are more similar that you’d think. Both offer “a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life; a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate.” And unpredictable, gripping drama. Like a good epic, a game, and season, has rising tension and an inevitable conclusion. But no two games or seasons are alike.

If games are stand-ins for inter-clan skirmishes, then our national pastime especially tickles our tactical wizardry. Baseball cultivates an obsession with minutiae like ERA (earned run average) and OBP (on-base percentage). Weird rules like “walks” and “stealing” and oddball superstitions make these battles feel all the more magical and arcane. Maybe baseball is as much sport as advanced role-playing game.

Which brings us to fantasy sports, now a $1.1 billion industry. In fantasy leagues, you act as owner to assemble dream teams to compete against other fictional teams, based on the performance of actual players and teams. The astounding financial success of sports, both “real” and “fantasy,” suggests we need them more than ever.

By becoming emotionally attached to an abstracted conflict, we peasants don’t need to wage real war. We’re happy to watch instead. Or to play in beer-fueled softball leagues.

When the Bruins lose — as they recently did in the Stanley Cup Final — naturally, we hang our heads in shame. The human species has always wanted to win, whether in tiddlywinks or in Vietnam. But with sports, the cycle of pain and hope is annual. Bruins fans’ wounds sufficiently licked in the off-season, we will again vow to defeat our enemy next year. And when your army wins, it can be good for both the personal and collective psyche.

So let us celebrate sports for why they work and why we need them. When the Yankees came to town this weekend (and the Sox won the three-game series 2 to 1), I saw the rivalry as a game, but also conceptual: as a protracted series of battles in an ancient war between neighboring kingdoms. I had to remind myself to leave my battle axe at home, and bring my mitt instead, and focus on Big Papi’s batting average.

This Sunday, when I saw the final game in person, I donned my cap of fealty emblazoned with a menacing “B,” and I employed the same magical thinking I did as a kid playing Little League. I taunted the opposing bullpen. And prepared myself to catch a severed of head of our enemy — I mean, a baseball — if anyone hit one my way.

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Tags: Baseball, Basketball, Boston, Football, Red Sox

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  • massappeal

    Given 1) that last night’s Red Sox-Yankees game started at 8 pm and ended after midnight, 2) the nature of deadlines, and 3) the history of that particular rivalry, it’s understandable you guessed as you did in the second-to-last paragraph. (Nonetheless, it’s probably worth correcting to reflect the fact that the Red Sox won the series, 2-1.)

    On a tangential—and perhaps entirely too serious—note, there’s apparently evidence that 1) playing World Cup soccer breeds nationalistic aggression, and 2) “democratic norms may help constrain nationalistic aggression”. http://themonkeycage.org/2013/07/19/playing-world-cup-soccer-breeds-nationalistic-aggression/

    • Ethan Gilsdorf

      thanks @massappeal:disqus for the comment. that’s been fixed in the commentary above. and that’s an interesting story about World Cup soccer and aggression. I had not seen that study. thanks for bringing it to our attention.

      • massappeal

        You’re welcome. I enjoyed your column. Thanks for writing it.

  • Lawrence

    Tribes are male bonding. And it can range from homo-social to homo-erotic form of bonding.

    And let’s not forget what the scientific research reveals: that spectators who watch their team battle, conquer and win have increased sperm levels and higher testosterone.

    It’s due to this homoerotic bonding with the masculine, athletic men on the field ( through motor mirror neurons) that men are so attracted to watching sports.

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