What is it about sports that can bring out an almost religious like fervor in fans?
Maybe we are drawn to the graceful athleticism we ourselves are unable to achieve, or the sense of coming together with others for something bigger than ourselves. These are all contributing factors, but one major aspect is missing -- the rules.
Sports are given a form by their rules and regulations. Humans naturally gravitate towards patterns and order. Language, transportation and music all utilize repetition and patterns. Baseball season is on the horizon, but what brings us to be so interested in a few dozen wealthy young athletes showing their capabilities?
Johan Huizinga tells us in his book, Homo Ludens that he believes human beings are a unique species not because we posses consciousness or language (as many philosophers before him have believed), but because we have the capacity -- and the desire -- for play.
Hunziger definition of play is not relegated to children's games nor is it limited to professional sports. He views play as a situation in which people must accomplish some goal within the confines of a set of rules. This invokes a sense of "flow" or what many athletes describe as being in the zone.
If everyone must abide by these rules, who on the field holds the most power?
The answer is the umpire.
It's the umpire's job to observe and then decide what's fair and what's foul. If the umpire succumbs to his own personal biases, the magic of sports comes undone. A game that is fixed is not a game at all. There is no magic without the rules -- and that is Huizinga's contribution.
Without rules, games lose their meaning. Obviously the rules can be "challenged" (in football), but once a decision is made, it is final. In baseball a call can be argued, but in the end umpire has final say. Each game has one singular arbiter of the rules.
The rules create the magic of sports. Games would lose their sense of suspense and climax if they had no time limits, no inbounds or out of bounds, and no foul shots or penalties. A big upset would lose its impact without the time ticking away. A last second shot is special because there is no second chance -- no re-negotiation of the rules. Fair is fair. You see, it is the limitations created by the rules that makes the meaning and draws us into a game.
Hunziger brilliantly understood that there's a microcosm and macrocosm to everything; that the drama of these games mirrors the drama of our lives.
That's why instances of cheating and steroid use have been such huge scandals. From Barry Bonds to Bill Belichick to Pete Rose -- cheating drains the game of its meaning. The players and coaches are human beings just like us, but if everyone cheated then why would anyone care?
So, why is Hunziga's insight so important to me? You see, for a society to work, nobody can be above the rules. This not to say that people can't and shouldn't make mistakes; but when the heads of Goldman Sachs or Citibank make millions of dollars while their companies are bailed out by the federal government, that is breaking the rules. It is fundamentally unfair.
When members of the clergy who have been trusted with children become child abusers and are then protected and covered for by their church in order to protect an institution that happens to be a religion -- that is breaking the rules.
And when a husband or wife takes everything from their ex-spouse during a divorce just because they hired a ruthless matrimonial attorney at the expense of their children's well-being -- that is also breaking the rules.
When the average American cannot attain higher education, go to a good school and find a good job without lots of money and connections, that too is breaking the rules.
This is why the rules matter, and when we can no longer hold people accountable for their actions, that is sad. Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA are captivating because, for better or worse, we believe them to be fair.
Sports can provide a physical manifestation of what we do in everyday life. We work hard, take care of our families and live our lives. It requires balance and great strength. You may split up with your husband, but you have to go on taking care of your kids and going to work. We can see the best qualities of ourselves manifested in sports, whether we realize this or not.
Professional sports are not perfect, but they do a good job at staying fair -- more or less. We should not settle for less than that in all the arenas of life. When we no longer believe in businesses, government, or community, everybody loses.
When we violate the rules too often, they no longer become the norm, but the exception and we lose the great magic that keeps our society dynamic.
I hope the politicians are listening.