Why We Love Sports

Author: David M. Shribman

George H.W. Bush was reared in New York Yankee country, for more than three-quarters of a century spent his summers in Red Sox Nation, was captain of the Yale baseball team, was the father of the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers and took Queen Elizabeth to a Baltimore Orioles game. But what was the 41st president of the United States, who ordinarily would sneak out of a Houston Texans football game at the end of the third quarter, doing in the stands at age 89 as the final seconds ticked down last autumn on yet another ignominious Texans’ gridiron defeat?

“Funny thing, as our losing streak got longer,” he says, “Barbara and I were more inclined to stay until the end of every game. They needed the fans more than ever. So we hung in there.”

Condoleezza Rice was a pianist as a young girl growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, earned a master’s degree in political science at Notre Dame in 1975, was a top adviser on Soviet affairs for the first President Bush and was appointed national security adviser and secretary of state for the second, served as provost at Stanford University, and last year was named one of the 13 inaugural members of the college football post-season playoff committee. So how did she explain her mania for American football to foreign ministers from around the globe, some of them not especially inclined to reach a decision or to conclude a negotiation?

“That it is a game of taking and defending territory,” she says, adding, “And there is always a score at the end — and a clock that runs out.”

E.L. Doctorow has written a dozen books, worked as a book editor with Ian Fleming and Ayn Rand, was presented the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton, won the National Book Award, and has taught at universities around the country, including Yale and New York University, where he holds an endowed chair in American letters. So why are the three letters “NFL” so intriguing to him?

“When I see people in the stands at NFL games waving their fists and wearing their team colors,” he says, “I know there is something going on: people expressing their loyalties to something that means an enormous amount to them.”

Rick Santorum was a member of the U.S. House and then the Senate, held a position at a well-regarded Washington think tank, wrote a newspaper column, is a leading conservative theorist and won a string of Republican presidential caucuses and primaries. So why did he interrupt his campaign in the Wisconsin Primary in the spring of 2012 to study player profiles in preparation for a fantasy baseball draft?

“I was fighting to stay in the presidential race,” he says, “but the draft was a priority, too.”

Gerald Hassell is the chairman and CEO of BNY Mellon, has more than 50,000 employees on his payroll and more than $27 trillion in assets under his custody. So in a rare moment of leisure when he was acclimating a small German shepherd he rescued to the big yellow Lab he already owned, why did he interrupt his long night of ministering to reach for his smart phone? To check an account of Duke’s 35-22 victory over Virginia.

“It’s part of me,” he says. “I can’t describe it, and I can’t understand it.”

For as long as there have been humans, there have been sports. Achilles organized athletic contests at the funeral of Patroclus, offering a lump of iron to the champions. Sport competitions appear in Homer’s poems. Huge athletic festivals were held at Olympia and Delphi. In our hemisphere, the Iroquois played lacrosse, sometimes with as many as a thousand contestants. The Mayans and Navajo diverted themselves with balls, the latter pioneering a hidden-ball game that their priests justified with a fanciful explanation: It mimicked a struggle between the animals of the night and the animals of the day that produced sunlight and darkness. That struggle always ended in a tie, which explains why we have day and night — and, if we extend the story, why we have day games and night games.

Right there, perhaps, is an anthropological explanation for the popularity of Monday Night Football. But all these anecdotes — plus the persistence of sports metaphors in daily life, the appearance in the office suites of white-shoe law firms of $800-an-hour attorneys wearing Pittsburgh Steelers or Chicago Bears uniform jerseys on Fridays before big games, and the apparent preoccupation Barack Obama has with the college basketball tournament that constitutes March Madness — prompts one of the most intriguing but elusive questions of our time and of any other:

Why do we care so much about sports?

And we do care. John F. Kennedy loved the Army-Navy game — he switched sides at halftime — and his brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, held court every even-numbered year at a tailgate at precisely the same spot outside Harvard Stadium before the Yale game. The mere mention of the three syllables of the word “Michigan” or the three letters that comprise “USC” are enough to make grown men and women associated with Notre Dame wince in pain or contempt. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea would be a lesser novel without the appearance of “the great DiMaggio,” no first name necessary. John Updike wrote two dozen books and scores of short stories but is perhaps known best for one sentence: “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.” A quarter century from now, if the name A.J. Liebling is remembered at all, it will not be for his war correspondence or his press criticism or even his dogged pursuit of Louisiana’s Huey P. Long, but instead for his lyrical writing on boxing. And while Paul Gallico may endure because of The Snow Goose and the film adaptation of The Poseidon Adventure, this passage, about his years as a sportswriter, deserves to pulsate in posterity:

It was a wonderful, chaotic universe of clashing colors, temperaments, and emotions, of brave deeds performed sometimes against odds seemingly insuperable, mixed with mean and shameful acts of pure skullduggery, cheapness, snide tricks, filth, and greed, moments of sheer, sweet courage and magnificence when the flame of the human spirit and the will to triumph burned so brightly that it choked your throat and blinded your eyes to be watching it, and moments, too, of such villainy, cowardice, and depravity, of such rapaciousness and malice that you felt hot and ashamed even to find yourself reporting it.

Or, more succinctly, in the words of Charles Fried, the Harvard Law professor who was solicitor general in the Ronald Reagan years: “Sports has the mixture of heroism and defeat and victory without consequence.”

There’s great truth in that sentence, and a great controversy — perhaps even a great contradiction — in the last two words of that sentence.

If these sporting matches are without consequence, then why does Tom Brokaw, the NBC broadcaster and balladeer of the Greatest Generation, interrupt Saturdays in the fall to see how the University of South Dakota fared, say, at Northern Iowa (won, 38-31 in two overtimes, last year), and why did his heart sink as the team lost its last five games in a row, and why is the team’s mascot, the Coyotes, embedded in his email address? Why does Freddie H. Fu, born in Hong Kong and today one of the world’s most famous knee surgeons, have a massive green “D” for Dartmouth on his shiny silver roadster, and why did he react to the last-quarter loss of the Big Green at the hands of its dreaded rival, Harvard, last November with a one-word text: “Heartbroken”? Why does Stephen King, no romantic in his trademark horror stories, turn weepy when it comes to his Red Sox, and how could he possibly say that their victory in the World Series in October restored balance to a city unnerved by the Boston Marathon bombings in April? And speaking of Boston, how could Dick Flavin, a colorful local commentator with a hardball political soul, say that the two most important things to happen to the city in his lifetime were the victories of Kennedy in the election of 1960 . . . and of the Red Sox in the World Series of 2004?

“It’s tribal,” says Adam Silver, the new commissioner of the National Basketball Association. “There’s a genetic component to this. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

There’s something, maybe even a lot, to that. At home we’re Mom or Dad, at work we’re the assistant comptroller of this or the general manager of that, at leisure we’re a golfer or a skier or a competitor in contract bridge or maybe a painter or after-hours pianist. But in the stands —important word, that — we stand for our team, and our allegiance stands for a larger identification.

“We have an innate desire to belong, which leads us to identify with those who share our heroes and our enemies,” says Jim Beattie, who pitched for the Yankees in the 1978 World Series, was general manager of the Montreal Expos and Baltimore Orioles, and today is a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays. “Groups that endure are based on devotion to heroes and traditions. Athletes are our heroes, the traditions are endless, and the enemy can always be found in the opposing team. Being a fan offers all of this — as well an opportunity for optimism no matter what happened today.”

So a new question emerges, like a rock thrust from beneath the soil after a winter freeze: If optimism is so important an element of our attraction to the world of sports, what could possibly be the draw of an endeavor in which in every episode — not accounting for skill and surpassing excellence, for the fans of the Chicago Cubs are as fervent as the partisans of the St. Louis Cardinals — half the competitors lose? (In triangular track and swim meets, two-thirds of the teams lose. Then there’s professional golf, where almost everybody loses.)

But maybe that’s all wrong, the winning and the losing. Maybe, as Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says, it’s the caring that counts. “Whether it is a pleasant ending or an unpleasant ending makes a difference, of course,” says Tomlin, who experienced both in a generally unsatisfying 2013 season at Heinz Field. “But to the true fan the result isn’t so important as the experience. There is a purity to sports.”

Michael Slive, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, may have a perspective that is useful here. He remembers going to a conference game during his first years at the helm of the SEC — not a rivalry game, like Auburn-Alabama or South Carolina-Clemson, but an ordinary, forgettable conference game in the middle of the season — and seeing a set of parents and their two children sitting in the crowd. And at that scene, with colors flashing and the band playing and cheers providing the punctuation of the afternoon, he could not repress this thought: In 30 years they would be grandparents and the kids would be parents and their children would be sitting just where they were sitting right now, and all would be right with the world.

“In our part of the world we have the most passionate, loyal fans in the country,” Slive says, not acknowledging that the same could be said around Notre Dame Stadium or in the Big Ten or the Pacific-12 or even in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, where last fall 2,437 fans dropped by Bates College’s tidy little Garcelon Field in Lewiston, Maine, to watch the hometown Bobcats prevail over the Polar Bears of Bowdoin, 17-10. But let him continue: “A lot of this has its roots in Southern pride and Southern culture. The conference is 80 years old. The traditions go back to the Depression years, even farther. This is a family tradition passed from one generation to the next.”

Which is why the guardians of Michael Oher, the central figure in the Academy Award-nominated film The Blind Side, were so thrilled — relieved, really — that he decided to attend their alma mater, Ole Miss. Which is why there was some poetry in the fact that Eli Manning followed his father, Archie Manning, to Ole Miss, where the official speed limit is 18, the father’s uniform number when he played there. And which is why, beyond the SEC, Mike Golic ’85, a Notre Dame linebacker, 115-game veteran of the NFL and the co-host of ESPN’s Mike and Mike show, followed his brothers, Bob ’79, an All-American linebacker, and Greg ’84, an offensive tackle, to Notre Dame, and watched his sons, Mike Jr. ’12 and Jake ’13, play guard and tight end, respectively, for Notre Dame, and his daughter, Sydney, a rising junior, swim for Notre Dame. “A huge reason we all went to Notre Dame was tradition,” says Mike Golic Jr., whose mother went to Saint Mary’s. “We grew up around Notre Dame, and it felt like home. It was a family thing.”

That family tie — from one generation to another, and then almost always on to a third — doesn’t apply only to participants. It is also a strong bond for spectators. “I associate my love of football and my teams, which of course include Notre Dame and Stanford, with wonderful childhood memories with my father,” says Condoleezza Rice, for whom the Stanford-Notre Dame contest must be pure agony. “We watched football every weekend, and I learned to love it.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote an entire book, Wait Till Next Year, about growing up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and learning to love the sport with her father. “I’ll always be grateful to my father for having given me an interest in baseball so deep that it remains a passion for me even now, year after year, from the first day of Spring Training to the last game of the World Series,” she recently said. “It all began when I was 6 years old and he taught me the mysterious art of keeping score so I could report to him the story of that afternoon in Brooklyn Dodger history and retell the story, inning by inning, when he came home after work that night.”

But for those without family ties to sport, sport provides family ties of its own. It is no coincidence that perhaps the most fabled Pittsburgh Pirates team — maybe more important, certainly more colorful, than the 1960 team that defeated the Yankees with a walk-off home run by Bill Mazeroski — was the 1979 edition, which had a theme song all its own. It was “We are Family,” by Sister Sledge, which carries the lyrics: We are family/I got all my sisters with me.

Talk with Debbie Brown, who has been Notre Dame’s women’s volleyball coach for almost a quarter century, and that sense of family fairly screams at you. Ask her about her composite record or inquire how many tournament appearances her teams have made, and she can’t tell you the answer.

Then ask Brown about the reason she loves her game — or ask why her players are drawn to a sport that barely existed a generation ago and now carries a dozen scholarships — and she’s a fountain of passion and a fire hydrant of explanation, a riff off Sister Sledge herself: “Our players care, really care, and not only because of the scholarships. If they didn’t really love it, if they didn’t really care about the sport, if they didn’t really dedicate themselves to the team, it would be like having a very bad job, one where you hated to get up in the morning and where you just passed the time. That just doesn’t work in the collegiate sports environment, where you spend all that time and make all those sacrifices and skip some of the college experiences that their classmates have.”

Indeed, it’s possible that spectators’ team loyalties, which seldom shift when Americans move from one city to another or teams relocate from one NHL division to another, are more robust and durable than those of participants, who take on the uniforms of new teams with sometimes stunning ease. “When you follow a team you feel you know the players, and you follow them as individuals,” says Danny Ainge, who played professional baseball (Toronto Blue Jays) and basketball (Boston Celtics) and now is president of basketball operations for the Celtics.

More than a half century ago, a team of scholars examined the social tendons of a Canadian suburb and found that hockey and Canadian football provided residents with a powerful sense of community. Further research has found that this phenomenon is not confined to men. In a 1995 study published in the Sociology of Sport Journal, Walter Gantz of Indiana University and Lawrence A. Wenner of the University of San Francisco concluded that in this regard, “male and female fans generally were indistinguishable from one another.”

And while sports divides us, it also unites us.

Gueorgui Milkov, research chief, ESPN The Magazine, photo by Mackenzie Stroh

It’s what we talk about when we relax with friends or are standing awkwardly with strangers at a reception. It’s what we watch in a bar — call me, collect, the next time you see C-SPAN on a big flat screen TV in your local watering hole — and what we discuss over coffee. Rabbis deliver sermons on it: Don’t waste your prayers on a World Series game, Rabbi Robert W. Shapiro admonished congregants at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in his 1967 sermon on the eve of Rosh Hashana, which happened to fall on the very day the Red Sox played the Cardinals in Game 2 of the World Series. Real cardinals — the Catholic kind — care about it, often devoutly. And one, Humberto Medeiros of Boston, paused during the Vatican deliberations in August 1978 that resulted in the election of John Paul I to inquire about the baseball standings back in the United States. When the cardinal was told just outside Saint Peter’s Basilica that the Red Sox led the American League East by eight and a half games, he murmured, “Deo Gratias.”

“Sport is a common thread for most Americans,” says Sandy Alderson, general manager of the New York Mets. “It’s a topic whose theme binds us and whose rivalries divide us, all at the same time. Sport allows us to express anxiety and elation, without social opprobrium. It gives us a license to go crazy, and that’s a good thing.”

Though scholars have identified “fan orientation” — that is a legitimate academic term, not unknown in journals and monographs — as far back as early Samoans and Pueblo Indians, the late University of Minnesota sociologist William Spinrad associated the phenomenon of being a fan with “urbanization, industrialization, and pervasive mass media.” We might add one other factor: the competition that is a central factor in modern American life.

No less a student of the American character than George H.W. Bush believes sports have “something to do with our character as a people,” adding, “Most Americans are competitors who strive for achievement, whether as individuals or as part of a group. Competition is a very healthy thing, whether you are on the field or on the couch watching.”

In a speech delivered at Hillsdale College in Michigan last September, John J. Miller, the director of the college’s program in American journalism, said young people who play sports stay in school longer and later, vote more often and earn more money, which, he said, “probably has something to do with developing a competitive instinct and a desire for achievement.” Sports are part of our cultural identity, not only because phrases like “touch base” and “on deck” and “long bomb” and “strikeout” are part of the American argot. “In America,” says Mike Tranghese, former commissioner of the Big East Conference, “choosing a side in competition is the thing we do.”

And when we do so, we attach cultural attributes to the teams we support — and to the ones we oppose. For Boston fans, the Yankees are the “evil empire.” For Stanford fans, no rival is quite so reviled as Cal, more so even than Notre Dame. Even though they no longer play in football, the University of Kansas regards the University of Missouri as evil incarnate, just as alumni of the University of Pittsburgh have no time for graduates of West Virginia University or, for that matter, of Penn State University, neither of which was on the Pitt football schedule last fall or this.

In Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, published last year, John U. Bacon wrote of fans’ investment in traditional rivalries: “They are attracted to the belief that it’s based on ideals that go beyond the field, do not fade with time, and are passed down to the next generation. And that loyalty spans the spectrum of your school’s teams. No Ohio State football fan is going to cheer for Michigan’s basketball team. Ever.” No readers of this magazine, either, ever.

Sports reflect life and influence life but are not life itself. The 60 minutes of a football or hockey game bear hardly any resemblance to the “crowded hour” that Theodore Roosevelt celebrated in his reminiscences and references to military engagements, specifically his charge up San Juan Hill. Last December the Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy said of his work: “This isn’t about taxes, abortion, gun control, or health care. It’s about first-round byes and Cover 2 defenses.”

Because sports are, instead, a vacation from life, a holiday from daily cares and woes. Andrew Card, who was George W. Bush’s chief of staff, mentioned last fall that the former president didn’t dwell on newspapers but “reads the sports page every day.” And why not? Though the sports pages today are not immune from conflict, crime, legal action, drug abuse and murder, they still offer a breather from the daily march of depression on the front page.

“Most of what news people cover is about failure, but sports is about success,” says John Affleck ’86, who holds the Knight chair on sports journalism and society at Penn State. “When we talk about records, we talk about what human beings have never done before — run faster, hit better, swim farther. And music and sports are the only two professions where the word we use to describe what professionals do is ‘play.’”

And when there are failures there often is wisdom. Last fall, after Alabama kicker Cade Foster missed two field goal attempts and had a third blocked in the Crimson Tide’s 34-28 loss to Auburn, George W. Bush dropped a note to Foster: “Life has its setbacks. I know! However you will be a stronger human with time.” Bush signed the note “another 43,” reflecting his position in the line of U.S. presidents and Foster’s uniform number.

Indeed, most American presidents have found diversion in sport. Theodore Roosevelt was riveted by it (and his intercession into college football changed, and probably saved, the game). No one knows for sure the origin of the seventh-inning stretch, but the folklore suggests it may have begun when TR’s successor, William Howard Taft, stood and stretched between the two halves of the seventh inning in a game in 1910. Woodrow Wilson attended nearly a dozen baseball games in his two terms, becoming the first chief executive to witness a World Series game, and any reader of A. Scott Berg’s new biography of the 28th president will wonder how Wilson found time to command U.S. forces in World War I because of all the golf he played. George W. Bush, who abandoned golf after the terrorist attacks, still threw the first pitch in Game 3 of the 2001 fall classic, a moment fraught with symbolism and significance as it was the first World Series game played in New York after September 11.

Those who earn their living on the playing fields and in the press box are often especially aware that their occupations and avocations are peripheral to the main event of life, even though the games they cover mirror life, even though they stand as metaphors for life, even though they offer lessons for life. Listen once again to the wisdom of Paul Gallico, writing in 1937:

Dynasties fell, nations collapsed, politics changed, dictators appeared, countries were torn apart by revolution, there were distant wars, but all I saw were the eight-oared shells glistening in the late afternoon sun at Poughkeepsie, shattering the shining surface of the water with their blades, crawling like enormous water-spiders down the reach of the Hudson; prizefighters lying twitching on the canvas while their opponents waited for them to get up, their arms following the spread of the roles out from the ring-posts in the corners; horses streaming in gay, changing patterns around the dirt tracks, their heads bobbing in rhythm and counter-rhythm, with a million dollars and more riding on their velvet noses. In my world there were only ball games played in hot, sweating, Indian-summer days.

We read such reveries — and studies like the one called “The Relationship Between Sport Team Identification and the Need to Belong,” published two years ago in the International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing — and still we do not understand fully the pull that sport exerts on us, or why we remember the first game we attended just as vividly as we remember the first kiss we gave or got, or why a phrase like “the figures in white and gray outlined against the brown and green diamond,” also from Paul Gallico, tug on our memories and lean on our hearts. These are mysteries, sacred ones, not so very different from faith and love, and mixing faith and love themselves, and approaching their power.

Late last fall a man in his 60th year felt that pull and traveled to New Hampshire to sit in the November chill, there to watch the splendid young men of his alma mater play an ancient rival, knowing that the world would little note nor long remember what transpired on that North Country field, covered by snow by the third quarter.

The game had its moments of excitement and tension and then sweet relief, and when the contest ended, the forces of good having triumphed over those of evil, he stood with his classmates and sang the college song — of course he knew the words, and those of the second verse, too. He looked across the field, and on to barren Balch Hill beyond the east stands and back again to the scoreboard, its lights now twinkling like faraway stars in the gathering dark of the afternoon, and he realized, the clash of the cymbals of the band and the symbols of his youth mixing in his mind, that it was not only the snow, now bearing down with wintry force, that rendered his eyes wet and sent a shiver, maybe even a jolt, through his body.

And there, standing as sister stands by brother, and with the hill winds in my breath, I said out loud of an event that rated but two sentences in the next morning’s The New York Times that I had seldom seen or felt anything quite so beautiful as the tableau that spread before me and the feeling that spread within me, amid the clanging bells and the crunch of feet on snow. Sports does that to us, and for us, inescapably, ineluctably, inexplicably, indelibly.

David Shribman is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.