Monday, October 1, 2012

Sports, politics, cave men and TV

Yesterday my husband took me to the Redskins/Buccaneers game. The Redskins won at literally the last second, so it was a successful game. But there were long stretches – experts might call them the third and fourth quarters – where the outcome was in doubt, and it gave me plenty of time to muse on the sports scene, and fandom in particular.

I’ve been a Redskins fan since high school. My father was a fan, and in those days – the 1980s – it was easy to be a fan, with the whole going-to-3-Superbowls and making the playoffs every year thing going on. Interestingly enough, those were also the years in which I became an obsessive General Hospital fan. That could say something meaningful about how we form our permanent identities in high school, but considering I was also a Republican back then, maybe not. (Of course Reagan was president, so who wasn’t a Republican??)

The game was terrific, and I’m sorry that local fans couldn’t watch on TV – it was blacked out. The stadium was so crowded, though, it was hard to believe. Most vendors ran out of food at halftime. And frankly, I think it’s unfair to black out games because the stadium isn’t 85 percent sold out three days before the game. I dare NFL commissioners to sit for four hours in the hot Tampa sun and try to follow the action on the field without going blind and dying of heat stroke. The Rays play under a roof. Hey, maybe that should have told you something! Then again, no one goes to the Rays games either.

We sat on the visitor’s side, which faces west. The Bucs and their fans were already in the shade. It’s a good thing the game started at 4:30; we all would have melted otherwise. We were surrounded by other Redskins fans, which made the Skins’ successful plays that much more wonderful and their failures that much more heartbreaking. When the Skins pulled it out in the end, we fell in with a crowd chanting “RG3” on the way back to the parking lot.

My friend Ang hates football. Whenever I post something on my timeline about the Redskins, she chides me for caring so much. And of course she’s right. Whether the Redskins win, lose, or are abducted by aliens has absolutely no impact on my life whatsoever. So why do I care so much? Why did I have a knot in my stomach when Tampa Bay kicked the leading field goal with less than two minutes to play?

Sociologists, or anthropologists, or some kind of gist, have postulated that the reason why sports teams are so popular and fans get so obsessive is because of our tribal ancestors. The theory goes that back when we were cave men, there was an evolutionary advantage to sticking together – there was always someone home to look after the cave men babies. And this is why today we paint our faces purple and black and occasionally someone gets beat up in the parking lot for supporting the visiting team.

This would also be the reason, these gists say, that one’s identity as Republican or Democrat means so much to a person. It’s why, they say, a Christian believes the estate tax should be demolished and a businessman is against abortion. Tribe members take their cues from other tribe members, and lock-and-step beliefs follow.

I’m not sure the gists have that part right. How I feel about politics is very different from how I feel about sports. And my son calls himself conservative, yet he picks and chooses from Republican and Libertarian beliefs to follow.

Rather, my feelings for sports are similar to my feelings about good TV, movies or books. It’s the story, and it’s the catharsis. It’s the chance to feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat without anything real at stake. Just like TV is the chance to fall madly in love with the wrong person, perform surgery or work for the mob without risking anything in real life.

Maybe we do still have the hearts of cave men, if not brains. For a cave man, every day was a struggle against the elements. Their lives were short and hard. When they felt a surge of adrenaline, it was because they were being chased by a mountain lion, not because they were watching their TV hero get chased by one on the small screen.

But sports does best TV in one important way: There is always next season. There will always be a next season. But every TV show must come to an end.

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