Friday, February 1, 2013

Is Sports Just Entertainment?

Super Bowl mania descends on us, and the endless stories about the bowl clog sports and mainstream media outlets. I am always struck this time of year by how much of the coverage casually refers to the game as “entertainment.” A quick Google search culls over 934,000,000 references linking the two. It comes out in a different but telling way when athletes talk about themselves. Some athletes use to deflate the obsessive American hero worship that plagues by saying “I’m just an entertainer.” They don’t say, “I’m just an athlete”—being an athlete matters too much to them. They don’t say “It’s just a game”—the game really does matter. By refocusing on entertainment, the athlete like many commentators who dismiss things as “just” or “mere” entertainment downplay its worth by hinting it does not really matter too much.

I think this is a mistake. 

To entertain can involve activity worthy of respect and attention. Many domains of human excellence and achievement have their own inner logic and beauty and deserve respect, but they also entertain. This entertainment can bring joy and appreciation to us. The link between sports and entertainment matters.

James Carville famously remarked “Americans view politics and sports as entertainment.” I for one have no problem with being entertained by an activity. We use the word entertain to cover a huge range of experiences such as reading literature, attending concerts, conversing with a friend, playing or watching a game. Being entertained can involve appreciating an activity and its form, and beauty and structure. It can involve pleasure, but far more such as delight or being transported or learning.

Being entertained can arise from serious endeavor and being entertained does not reduce to pleasure. One can be entertained by tragedy or serious conversation or plays or endeavors like a political campaign. People can experience pain and sorrow as well as exhilaration or delight from entertainment.

The deep roots of the word entertain derive from two areas. The Indo-European root “ten” means “hold” or “grab.” These meanings continue through the French tenir to English. “Enter” suggests gathering together and inviting one inside to be together. The root of entertain points to people gathering together where they find their attention held by the actions or people or object they engage.

Being entertained does not just mean to be amused or charmed or even pleased. Entertainment does not require pleasure or happy endings. Art can entertain. People can entertain. Spectacle can entertain. Competition can entertain. But none guarantee that we made happy by it.

Being entertained means that we are grabbed; our attention is focused and we attend to what is before us. We can see, hear and experience in a visceral way. Good entertainment pulls us into the emotional, cognitive and perceptual possibilities of an experience. A book a play, a symphony, a class, a game, a conversation can entertain us.

All these experiences require is human attention and openness to experience. Entertainment can be a trifle for our amusement, but it can elicit profound emotions such as a symphony, rock song or a play, novel or inspiring lecture. All entertain but they capture our attention and interest at different levels. This engages us, and the level of engagement opens the possibility of learning or changing from the experience. At the least, entertainment can divert us and permit us to appreciate an experience, but it offers more. Entertainment can influence or change us. The key becomes the level of engagement from us that it captures from us.

I think that sports can be entertaining in all these ways because it can arrest out attention, engagement and influence our emotions. It can provide delight, sorrow, ecstasy, sadness or even boredom. It can call forth intellectual and emotional interest, study and attention. Almost any aspect of life can do this for people interested in a domain. The mimetic arts like dance, theater, and music evoke this reality with extreme clarity and power. Sports live in that same family.

What makes the entertainment of sports so compelling is that sports competition is open ended—we do not know and cannot predict the outcome. This means that every sport competition possesses an edge of uncertainty and risk—it is why I cannot watch when my team is trying to make a free throw with one second left or a field goal kicker is kicking a game winner with two seconds left.

The sheer uncertainty can compel attention and heighten interest and passionate engagement. I do not want to deny the capacity of scripted and predictable outcomes to entertain and educate us. Rereading a book, re-listening to a record or re-watching a movie can provide endless satisfaction and appreciation as well as being a Rorschach test of who we are at different times. But the possibility of the unexpected and the new adds luster and interest to entertainment. Sports possesses a reality and real time component that scripted life and works can never provide.

Art introduces competition all the time. Ancient Greece from which we inherit both our art and our sport connected them both with beauty— they conducted competitions for plays, dance and sculpture. They played war games from which western sports developed. Today we regularly stage juried art shows and competitions in all areas of art and production. Products and artists boast of winning awards at shows. These competitions with winners and losers supplement the competitive market place where over time products but also artists discover if people will spend money and time to appreciate, use and be entertained by their creations.

Sports can carry this uncertainty and competition to logical extremes, but we experience it in many areas of life. Every time a symphony or drama is performed, the script interacts with the unique interpretive power of the performers. In classical music credenzas permitted and encouraged improvisation and virtuosity among performers. In jazz the basic themes and structures open up to improvisation that defines the art. Live performance even of scripted art entertains in a unique and powerful way with the edge of risk and creativity that accompanies each new performance even of well-known classics.

Entertainment is quite consistent with powerful purpose and commitment. We see this in drama and performance art and in live human performances such as courts or war or politics or market competition. We can see it when painters or dancers or composers push established boundaries and rules to create new forms or reinvigorate old forms. None of these has guaranteed outcomes and all can entertain and engage by virtue of the uncertainty and risk and unpredictability of the competition.

Sport games synchronize a powerful narrative in a controlled way. Human life is rife with ambiguity and unknown outcomes. We constantly embark on risk ventures at work and at home. Competitive athletics both regulates and intensifies this driven contrast through games with rules that determine winners and losers within limited space and time. Winners and losers are clear and celebrated. But then the next game, the next competition, the next season begins again, just like life. Coach Nick Saban won his third national championship in four years in football and put it well, “I will have one day to enjoy this, then it begins again.”

John Rocker, one of the true knucklehead of recent baseball history, offers a different take. Defending the use of steroids in baseball he suggested that baseball and all sport really are just entertainment. "When people are paying their $80 to $120 whatever it may be to buy their ticket and come watch that game, it;s almost like the circus is in town."..."They wanna see some clown throw a fastball 101 mph and some other guy hit is 500 feet. That's entertainment."  It may be, but it is not athletics, just look at the World Wrestling Federation.

We can be entertained by sports in so many ways just as we can by art, people, politics, markets and the rest. I want to insist that being viewed as just entertainment does not denigrate sport just as it does not denigrate movies or drama or dance.

The ancient Greeks understood that each human practice involves skill and a unique form of beauty. Competition in sport or playwriting or inventing can breed excellence in achievement. It can push masters beyond themselves and motivate young artists and athletes and entrepreneurs to innovate, adapt and produce greater accomplishments. The Greeks also insisted that each practice possessed a unique dynamic and virtues and beauty that can earn our appreciation and respect.

Sports entertain us; just don't call it just entertainment.


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