Sports & Culture

Feast of St Sebastiane the Martyr

Hoplite_Soldier_Square.jpegThe Traveller and the Campfire
Taking part in the celebration of sport, the collection of people around food and sports, was often a comfort to me. As a displaced person working on my own in locations around the world, I viewed sporting events as campfires in the wilderness of globalism. A sports bar featuring American football broadcasts in Wiesbaden, or a hotel bar in Mozambique featuring rugby were places I would be drawn to in my otherwise wandering isolation. I would wonder at my own behavior even as I sought these things out, realizing that I was simulating the attachment to an artificial local culture through the means of a virtual presence; the broadcast of a tribal event into a ‘clearing’ where people congregated to cheer and grin around food and drink. The big screens are exactly like campfires in their flickering comfort and simultaneous uncanniness.
The Neighbor
I had a friend in Pittsburgh, who had a house perched on Mount Washington that featured an observation deck high above the city situated between the rivers. It allowed a view down the football field across the river where the Steelers played, right through the uprights. Watching the games through the telescope there we would hear the ocean wave susurration of the cheers and moans of the disembodied crowd in the distance, bright uniforms on the field against the feverish green—all hyper real. Sitting behind home plate watching the Pirates play in that same city, now actually there in the generator of the sports beam, I can remember primarily congratulating myself on beer, chicken wings, and the coziness of the crowd in the summer sun as the city skyline dramatized that crowd, and the arc of the ball and sporadic periods of concentration and activity on the diamond. Pittsburgh would become inhabited during professional sporting events, no longer doors and windows, but people dressing the same way and thinking about the same things. Apparently.
The Battler
As an athlete in high school, my father a coach, I saw sports as a way to prove myself and please my father. Working through the rules and holding up my end in a game of football, enduring and inflicting pain and intimidation provided a link with all the heroes of stories I had read and gave me a context for growth. When the struggle itself was my tutor, Track-and-Field taught me the rule of perseverance. In that sport pain became confused with elation. Wrestling made everything personal, and basketball made everything mathematical. What was common is that I had to show up as a complete being in order to experience both success and failure in a reminder of mankind and his beef with the created order. I’m no longer sure if sport is a metaphor. Sport may well be a verity.
Power and Weakness
We have heard that sport is pageantry standing in for warfare. War, even in the use of the word, is not near us at this moment. The name ‘Department of Defense’ seems analogous to the pink ribbons and shoes that pay ransom for the sins of violence during breast cancer awareness month. A bone shaking tackle triggers a nod to mother’s milk. Is it possible then for people who no longer think and speak this word to mean the same thing that previous athletes meant when they claimed to have striven? Our talk and our attention has ignored this word ‘war’ because it is egregious. Now war is never desired and never assumed. It is postponed. Forces still bubble beneath the forged lid that we have provided for the cauldron of human energy. Do we believe that life is a fight? What is this talk of bullying that allows us to frown and disavow power and deny weakness?
Abstraction of the Self
Partitions, compartments and cells describe our experience. We have a wealth of vicarious opportunities to imagine at a distance what life must essentially be like. We can look away from the designated experiencers of life at its most furious. Why do we have professional athletes, professional politicians, professional sex performers, professional councilors (friends), professional soldiers, professional tax preparers? Postmodern experience is a vicarious one. Some struggles we prefer to experience, but at an abstracted level. How dislocated we are when we gather as hooligans to vicariously bask in the abstracted struggle of men who make their living struggling in person over an issue abstracted by money. How easy it is to postpone the deliberation of cultural struggle when our legions pursue a profession that used to define citizenship. Looking toward and looking away are the motions of this subtraction from ourselves. I realize that this has happened before, even in the famous riot of the blues and greens at the bloody chariot races in Byzantium. This phase of society appears to be sclerotic, senile, and sedentary. The struggle when postponed will eventually reappear with compounded interest.
Drawing an analogy between professional soldiery and professional athletics provides an insight based on increasing vicariousness and abstraction in human life as specialization increases. We use the abstraction of money to hire others for the purpose of fulfilling the various revelations of virtue in our civilized life. The human essential strife can be spread and born by specialists, who we either are at leisure to safely ignore or vicariously observe in their work, giving us the unfortunate distance from the spirit of overcoming, and a simultaneous illusion of victory. Observe how the National Football League invents intense rivalries between teams that are composed of abstract athletes, themselves with no interest or connection with their civic surroundings.
Achilles on the Beach
The attraction of sport is connected to the fact of struggle at the bottom of human existence. As society matures, struggle becomes less immediate and we see ourselves not overcoming adversity, but postponing the inevitable (or is it?).
By engaging in athletic contest as an act of citizenship, the lessons and catharsis of overcoming and losing are rehearsed, keeping the essential nature of mankind close to our wakened awareness. We come to understand the best friend and the bitterest enemy with equal appreciation, and grow strong rather than fat. This wakened mind has nearly vanished from the disintegrated consciousness of the political stage, the world of big business, and the world of art. The popular mind has become thuggish in the hypertrophy of professional sport, both participating and sybaritically observing.
Become countercultural. Battle in local context. Support local sports teams and clubs—fomenting real rivalries and fostering sportsmanship in the deep sense. Above all, participate.

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