Philosophy of Sport

I didn’t bother to ask what he thought of the Superbowl. I already knew he didn’t watch – at least to the extent you can know without asking. It just seemed like a stupid thing to assume otherwise, connecting the dots of the most likely scenario of asking: “You know I don’t follow sports.”

I didn’t want to put him on the spot like that. I don’t like putting people on the spot. I like pleasant scenarios. Scenarios of laughs and ease, especially socially. But he’s not much of one for that. Hence, I always feel defensive, having to maneuver around things like the Superbowl.

That’s why I was surprised when he asked, “What did you do for the big game?”

I explained I went to a friend’s house. There was lots of food and the game was really exciting. I didn’t bother to explain how or why, assuming again, it didn’t matter to him. Assuming he wouldn’t care. I said that friend’s wife was back in school and he was doing a lot to help her out since she was never a great student. I said that, knowing he wouldn’t care one bit about any of that either. Not why or what she was studying. What we had to eat or how this friend was doing after losing his father.

Then I asked, “What about you?”

“Nothing,” he explained. “You know I’ve always thought sports are dumb.”

“Yes. But why?”

“It’s just wasted motion. Wasted energy and effort. To play that is. Mostly a waste of time to watch too. Where’s it get you, anyway? Do you feel better today because you watched that game on Sunday? If your team lost, you’d probably feel worse so what’s the point in caring? What’s the point in participating, physically or socially?” he asked.

“Did you ever play sports?” I asked.

“No.”

I wanted to ask if he’d ever participated in any sort of group activity – volunteering or some kind of club in high school but I figured that might be too provocative.

So I asked instead, “Do you know the rules to most games?”

“Puck in goal. Ball over fence. Ball through hole. Punch somebody in the face and knock him out. It’s not rocket science.”

I chuckled.

“There’s a lot more to it than throwing or running the ball,” I said. “There’s clock management. There’s the proper number of players in legal formations. There’s lots of stuff you can and can’t do. Plenty of ways to exploit an opponents weaknesses or exploit your own strengths. There are actual strategies.”

“All I see is guys on skates putting a puck in a net,” he said. “I mean, if you don’t get that, you must be pretty dumb.”

I wondered what he saw in chess – just guys moving black and white pieces around.

“There’s icing and offside. I’m not sure what they are but they affect the structure of the game,” I said. “Hence, the foul.”

“Structure?”

“Yeah. The game’s highly structured. That much I know. That’s why there’s all the rules.”

I’m not one to provoke but I couldn’t believe that a guy professing intelligence hasn’t seen – hasn’t understood – that the game is more complex than schoolkids banging rocks into a hole. That’s it’s structured. And did he understand the enormous disciple most athletes are subject to? Was he truly that ignorant that games have complex rules and strategies? I was dumbstruck by this ignorance but kept it to myself and wondered if he thought playing flute in a symphony was nothing more than blowing into a hole in a hollow stick and pushing a bunch of keys. Or that’s war’s just giving a bunch of guys guns and tanks and cannons and planes and letting them loose to fight it out. That hunting’s going out on a random day at a random time with a random weapon and just trying to kill whatever wanders past or over flies overhead. I tried to imagine what his response might be to any of that and it all that came to mind was: War is stupid. Music is stupid. Hunting is stupid. It’s all stupid.

Then I got to thinking maybe that’s how some people view life on the whole: as nothing more than balls thrown through hoops, strings plucked for sound, words dropped on pages, fine food versus fast food distinguished only by pretense, speech with no real thought or feeling or intent behind them. All of it a very one dimensional understand of so much that surrounds us.

I kept it all to myself. I didn’t provoke because, in a way, I understood. I understood the impulse to demean what most of the world understands, but you don’t. Like the guy who makes his way in the world without being able to read. There’s pride to be taken in his ingenuity, I guess, but it still doesn’t make up for the fact that he’s too dumb or too lazy to have learned how to read. Or too ashamed to try. Whatever the reasons, none are a very fine source of pride. Yet, I understand the impulse to degrade the necessity of reading and, in turn, pridefully promote the virtues of illiteracy as catalyst to ingenuity – to the promotion of creative solutions to solving the problems of being unable to read.

“There’s a whole division of philosophy called Philosophy of Sports but I haven’t gone too deep into it,” I said.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “The philosophers are always looking for anything to make a big deal about. A much bigger deal than needs to be made. Always taking something trivial and turning it into something bigger and more important than it really is.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve not studied it but I’ve heard some different theories.”

My friend didn’t say anything so I continued.

“Some people say there’s social utility to sports. That it’s a learning or development tool. We learn to socialize primarily through family, church, school and sports. Something like that.”

He didn’t say anything. I suspected he was loading his gun.

“I heard this comedian say once that the appeal of sports has to do with its application of rules. Like the rules of economics and our social interactions are sorta loose. But in the arena of sports, there’s strict boundaries and rules. It’s a pure contest between people that we don’t otherwise get to see. He said maybe that’s the appeal.”

“That seems stupid,” my friend said.

“And I’ve thought there’s another social utility to sports. It’s sort of an icebreaker at work. An easy point for jumping off into conversation,” I said.

“Trivial conversation,” he said.

I imagined him wanting to add, “…..for stupid people.” I imagined him holding that one back.

“Yeah, but there’s utility in trivial conversation too. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Like an inability to engage in polite conversation is a red flag that maybe what you’re dealing with is somebody who’s not well socialized. Maybe a narcissistic or sociopath or solipsist or just too weird for most people to feel comfortable around.”

My friend smirked and rolled his eyes.

“Weird,” he said. “Like you or anybody else is qualified to make that call.”

I didn’t want to contest that that’s what people in groups do, they judge and come to collective determinations about the suitability of another fitting into the group. I knew he wouldn’t wanna hear that, like the illiterate not wanting to the about the overwhelming social utility of the masses being able to read, so I cautiously continued on about the social utility of things.

“Or, like a guy warms up to you over conversations about sports and from all your social queues and stuff he starts to put together you’re an okay guy. And from there you both start to open up about other things. And from that, you gain a bit from his life experiences and he gains a little bit from yours. That seems to be how it works, whether it’s sports or the TV shows that are super popular.”

My friend isn’t a good socializer. I knew he wouldn’t like that.

“What do you really learn from him?” my friend asked. “It’s nothing but chatter.”

I know my friend’s more a proponent of learning through thinking and reading, not experiencing. As such, it’s necessary to devalue more of our trivial, everyday interactions as banal and beneath him.

“You can’t tell if somebody’s a sociopath by whether or not he can hold a conversation about Dancing with the Stars,” he added.

“Of course not,” I said. “But it could be a marker among many other markers. That’s all.”

“You ever read Huxley?” he asked.

There it was. I knew the intellectual pretense would finally rear its head. It was one of the first things that attracted me to this friend – his intelligence in being able to talk about Huxley and Tolstoy and Freud, stuff like that. But that was in the beginning.

“Yeah, years ago,” I said.

“Huxley had this thing in Brave New World called Obstacle Golf. You remember that?”

“No. I don’t remember much about that book. Just that there was some sorta noble savage motif that has stuck with me as kinda corny. Something I associate with the kid from The Road Warrior, a character that’s a real blemish on an otherwise brilliant movie.”

“Anyway,” my friend continued. “Obstacle Gold was a distraction. A tool to keep people soft and dumbed down and controlled.”

I thought for a moment.

“Wasn’t sex a tool of oppression in Brave New World too? Rotating sex? Something like that?”

“Yeah.”

“So, by your logic via Huxley, sex is bad too.”

“Sex and sports aren’t the same thing,” he said. “Even Orwell disliked sports. You’ve never heard the quote that sports is ‘war without the shooting’?”

“No,” I said.

My friend seemed very satisfied.

“So you’ll disregard philosophy and psychology and sociology for Orwell and Huxley?” I asked. “Without caring to investigate any of those other things?”

“I never said I didn’t care,” he said. “You’re projecting.”

“Okay. Then truthfully, do you care? Would you have given any of these other ideas a second’s thought?”

I was getting nervous. I hate getting pulled into that sort of bullshit.

“Maybe,” he said.

But probably not, I knew. See, quoting a bit of Huxley and Orwell makes people feel smart. Plenty smart. Smart enough to satisfy themselves with not knowing or caring about the deeper dimensions of things like sports or whatever else they don’t really want to know much about. It’s a cheap out, I’ve come to understand. A cheap out like wearing gaudy gold jeweler to make an impression and conceal the fact that there’s nothing very impressive to what’s hiding behind the impression. And that’s what it is – all the platitudes about Freud and Tolstoy and Huxley and Orwell – just cheap, gaudy gold chains and grills purchased from a kiosk at some struggling mall. Just ornamentation.

I’ve thought about my friend a lot – maybe too much. I’ve considered the difference between actual intelligence versus social intelligence and how weary it is dealing with a person severely lacking in either. It’s wearisome dealing with the intellectual dolt but it’s also wearisome dealing with the social dolt who, possessing considerable intelligence and craft, utilizes his quasi-intellectualism as cheap ornamentation to deceive, sorta like a toupée or lifts in a short man’s shoes. It’s sad and wearisome to discover and there’s a part of me that wants to make it better – that wants to console him about his lack of height, knowing it’s such a tender and soar spot that he goes to the length of slipping those lifts into his loafers everyday and pretending to be something he’s not. So I sit back and ingest all that bullshit about Freud and Huxley as best I can, wondering if someday he’ll open up about his height. Not that I can solve his problem or give him much advice, but if I can, in any way, act as a catalyst to his confrontation of his insecurity, that might be a good thing. Of course, this all sounds very benevolent. As I said, I’m a pretty mellow and agreeable guy. It could be I just don’t like confrontation and let people off too easy when it comes to dishing out their bullshit.

I didn’t want to argue anymore. I didn’t want to contest or contend or defend against being outwitted so I swallowed my sigh and said, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe the Superbowl was stupid.”

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