What is being a sports fan really about? Is it just like an addiction to chess or light beer or mashed potatoes? Well, no; it’s more than that. It makes you a citizen of a parallel world.
A famous sonnet by E. E. Cummings ends: “listen, there’s a hell/ of a good universe next door; let’s go.” With a somewhat different signification, Shakespeare wrote in ”Coriolanus”: “There is a world elsewhere.” But a catchphrase like that surpasses and outlasts its original meaning. Many of us have been looking for and happy to embrace another habitat in a world of sport.
This alternative world is much more forgiving than our basic everyday one. If the player or team you root for loses, you can put on a brave smile and declare, “Just wait till next year.” It is a more sustainable loss than any other kind; you can even, with impunity, switch to another sport and win there.
But what if your team or player wins? True, your triumph is vicarious, but less so than a mere win at cards, say, or at pick-up sticks. Why? Because it is in an activity that the whole first world can watch on mass media, which for all is a form of projection into, participation in, a great game with the playing field not merely even but also universal.
I am basing this largely on my own experience, and my feeling of intense identification with this or that famous sports figure. But this identification is just as possible with an entire team. Take for example the orgiastic oneness with the American Women’s Soccer Team, winners just now of the World Cup. Do not the tens of thousands watching their triumphal progress through the Canyon of Heroes, as two tons of confetti at tax payers’ (i.e., your) expense, are wafted halo-like onto their heads absorb you into their victory?
I myself idolize my Serbian ex-compatriot and fellow Belgrader (former in my case, but still), tennis champion Novak Djokovic. Whenever he wins, and nowadays he usually does, it is very much as if I were winning a bit too. The only things comparable might be movie fandom and adoration of pop musicians, whether singers or instrumentalists. But even there, there is a significant difference. Those stars are not always around, at best in your record or video collection, but that is not happening in the Now, as a TV broadcast is. And somehow your having to handle a disc or a DVD makes it feel more manufactured, less universal than a program you watch with perhaps millions of others.
With actors or actresses, lust enters into the reckoning. As a heterosexual man, for example, you cannot quite escape some yearning, probably unacknowledged, for the likes of Jane Fonda, Mary Louise Parker, or Laila Robins. And then there is the fact that they are impersonating, being someone other than themselves, that makes for some distanciation--to say nothing of th’ expense of jism in a waste of shame. Djokovic, on the other hand, is always Djokovic, absorbing you as unmitigatedly himself.
What promotes identification is also steady availability thanks to the Tennis Channel, ESPN, or some additional channel. This allows for close, extended contact such as I do not have with actors who are often on hiatus. Not to mention actors who rub me wrong: a Streisand and a Minnelli, say, who put me totally off. There is no one in sports who does quite that to me, although creatures like Svetlana Kuznetsova or Madison Keys come close. It may help, though, that we know little or nothing about the private lives of any of them.
Sports are simply better covered than the arts in just about any publication. The sports section of the Times keeps me company through my long breakfast as no other section, save the Arts or the Book Review, does. But in regional newspapers there is only sport accounted for, whereas movies, to say nothing of theater or literature, hardly exist.
Charismatic sports figures are depicted and written up extensively in the papers, and an aficionado can spend hours with them—not to mention attending them in action if one has the time and the means to do so. This, usually, provides al fresco benefits to boot.
And sports have their history too. There is no shortage of fan-historians who can recite for you the scores of baseball games long past including the names of batters and pitchers, with at least as much gusto and detail as most theater fans can come up with details about seemingly forgotten shows. But what am I getting at with all this?
I am trying to demonstrate that there is this other world of sports in which we can immerse ourselves, get passionately involved with, fill our thinking and conversation, and thus ward off the more humdrum, onerous, and potentially hurtful real world. I, for instance, spend hours upon hours watching tennis on TV, driving my uninterested wife nuts with the sound, and then spend more hours discussing it on the phone with a likeminded friend. To my mind, it far outclasses as escape the widespread passion for pop music, even as the sound of rackets hitting balls is subtler than that of most modern pop music, and I’ll even throw in Glass and Reich.
So it is also for you and me that the starting bell tolls or the pistol pops, that goals are scored and basketballs tossed, that fantastic jumps are made with or without pole over high bars, or down into the deep end of pools. For us also that losing shoulders are pinned down with half or double nelsons, that a baton is deftly passed from one runner to the next, that capped heads bob up from pool’s edge to pool’s edge, or heavy gloves thunder onto opposing chins. It is for us too that eternally young and charmingly bedizened persons pirouette on the ice, that foils and sabers are crossed and that skis fly through the air to dizzying distances and that teams or individuals leap gazelle-like across hurdles crowding upon them.
It is also for our emotional participation that a fully or partly inflated football is thrown across considerable distances, that archery conjures up memories of more glorious ages. I could go on and on, but think I have made my point sufficiently.
And as I am writing this, I have just watched the great Novak Djokovic once again wresting the Wimbledon trophy away from the grasp of magnificent Roger Federer, which fills me with a glow that will last me at least till nightfall. For childless me it is, I imagine, what a little boy’s flawless recitation of a poem or a little girl’s baking some prize-winning cookies is to a proud parent.
Only, I’d like to think, even better.