Moving earth, reading the Timberwolves

Benjamin Polk —  March 24, 2011 — 8 Comments

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It has been nearly two weeks since Japan weathered the largest earthquake in its recorded history, been deluged by a tsunami and terrified by the specter of nuclear disaster. Whole towns have been destroyed. People have been buried in rubble, swept away to sea, poisoned with radiation. In addition to that tremendously awful situation, Muammar Qaddafi has been murdering his own people with abandon and the U.S. and its allies have found themselves embroiled in another military conflict. I think you probably already know this.

In that time we at A Wolf Among Wolves have published five posts. One of them is a funny photoshopped picture. Another is a strident critique of the Timberwolves’ defense. A third examines Nikola Pekovic’s recently improved play and his struggle to avoid foul trouble. Not exactly seething with geopolitical relevance, right?

Now, this is a blog about basketball and as such it’s not our job to report the news. As a matter of fact, I know for certain that many people visit sites like ours as away of escaping the awful things that happen every day–and the rotten, degraded discourse that inevitably grows around them. But still, I can’t escape the feeling that a detailed description of the Wolves’ indecisive weakside rotations against Utah’s flex offense somehow misses the point, that our typically American mode of blithe myopia is a pretty bad look at moments like this.

One wonders: how should we, as people who care about sports and who devote no small amount of our energies and intellects to thinking about and discussing sports, deal with things like this? How do we reconcile the feeling within us that basketball is somehow really important with the awareness that it seems to have very little to say about the tremendously awful things that happen in the world?

The typical answer to this question is some version of the statement above: sports are escapism. They have value because they give people a break from their worries and fears. They provide a place for people to relax, to be thrilled, entertained, moved, even enraged without the pressure of real-world consequences. This idea of entertainment–a dreamworld in which the viewer passively receives information and emotion with no strings attached–is the way we conceive of all of our pop culture.

I would not presume to deny the power and value of escapism. Everybody has the right to lay their burdens down, to forget the world and become absorbed in a realm of harmless amusement. But ultimately, I find this account pretty unsatisfying. Because escapism depends on turning away from the world, on ignorance and forgetting. And this condemns sports to an irrelevance that is not only makes seriously pursuing them irresponsible but also fails to do justice to the passion and care that we invest in them.

Recent events do remind us that its patently obscene to treat professional sports as if they had world historical importance commensurate with a catastrophic natural disaster or massive, violent political upheaval. We’re all guilty of this–of grave, self-serious assessments of a team’s playoff chances, of scolding descriptions of this player’s effort or that player’s ability to shoot in the clutch, as if these were serious moral failings or serious news. I hope you’ll agree that this is a little off-key, a strange mislaying of our attentions.

But so what should we do? How do we honor the depth of our care for the sports we love while still recognizing the ultimate triviality of their outcomes, especially at a time like this, when the world’s sufferings and tragedies are staring us so directly in the face?

Let me suggest that sports, properly experienced, are a celebration. They are a celebration of our bodies’ beauty and possibility, of the breadth of our physical creativity, of the depth of our capabilities for passion and commitment. To me, real celebrations–those performed  in full recognition of the world’s sad facts and with a deep gratitude for the gifts we’ve been given–are an entirely appropriate response to tragedy. This is true even now, as so many people are denied the full use of their bodies by the caprices of nature or by the malice and vanity of violent, powerful people. When we celebrate properly, we don’t forget the world, we remember it.

To this way of thinking, the results of the games are far less significant than the effort, skill, imagination and joy that go into the playing. Of course, we care very much about the outcomes. Winning and losing are, after all, the engines that drive the competition, the structure that makes the celebration possible. As fans, we are deeply invested in the success and failure of our favorite teams and players. And this is perfectly fine–as long as we remember that the outcomes themselves are not what gives the game its deepest meaning, its real value to us and to the world.

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This is a tough balance to strike: to take the game seriously as a form of celebration and expression, but not with such gravity and self-importance that we forget about the rest of the world. It can be particularly difficult when following a team like the Timberwolves, who evince a level of frustration and despair in their supporters that is hard to come by in any venue outside of politics.

In another way, though, this can be a good reminder to us to examine the process, not the result. To search for moments of grace and beauty amid even the most discouraging Wolves loss. To remember how lucky we are to be able to live through these magnificent athletes (even if they are slightly less magnificent than everybody else’s). There are 11 games left in this long NBA regular season. Sounds like a party.

Benjamin Polk

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8 responses to Moving earth, reading the Timberwolves

  1. I do appreciate this post, and as one who follows the Timberwolves for pure entertainment purposes, there is always something else to learn while escaping: how to see the world and what it is doing. For example, in a flexing world (not unlike a flexing offense) how does one defend and survive against earthquakes and tsuanmis, unless there is strong help from others (the weak side, in our example)? In other words, feel free to take the Timberwolves to task for failing to help against an onslaught…but they are just microcosm of the rest of us in our arenas of life at times…and–if I am honest–in life my winning precentage is more similar to the Timberwolves than to the Lakers or Spurs…perhaps that’s why I follow? Keep up the good work, in spite of the doubt.

  2. Much appreciated, thanks for the comment.

  3. A Different Ben March 24, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    It occurred to me while reading this post that sports are, at their heart, about a story. It’s the story that draws us in–the story of a possible upset, the suspense of a back-and-forth game, the triumph of the hero or the inevitable repeat victory of the all-powerful villain. Whether people want Miami to win or lose, it’s because they’re rooting for the storyline they desire to play out. And when we show up to watch our hapless Wolves stumble their way to another loss, we’re sticking with it in hopes (or firm belief) that the story will one day turn around, and we’ll be able to talk about how we were there with them in the deepest valleys.

    The beautiful thing about sports is that we can feel like we’re part of the story because it tells itself to us in real time. We may be able to figure out what’s going to happen in a movie or a book, but there’s always an element of surprise to a basketball game. It gives us a reason to watch and a reason to cheer. I cheer for the Wolves the same way I cheer for Rocky, except I’ve seen Rocky before and I haven’t seen the next Wolves game yet.

    But what’s the point of a sports story? It could be escapism, but I think escapism is about how someone watches, not about the thing they’re watching. If we’re paying attention, the story a sports game tells us can speak to the heart in the same way a great work of literature can. A game can be a parable of human character. We want Garnett to be a beast on the floor but don’t like it when he snarls and intimidates because we value the triumph of strength and will but don’t like expressions of arrogance and superiority. We want Beasley to be an efficient shooter because we don’t like wasteful effort, and we want to see the fulfillment of potential.

    How else could the 1980 Olympic Hockey tournament capture the attention of a nation? It was more than a game–it was a story about two philosophies of humanity battling it out in sport. I’m not just talking politics, though it certainly captured that story too. But it was the brutality and dehumanizing machine of Communism, an ideology even present in the Russian style of hockey, vs. the freedom, courage and heart of the American dream. For everyone who watched that game, it was the opposite of escapism.

    I’m probably reading into this too much, but I think the principle stands. Ultimately it boils down to the point of most stories–we want the good guy to win, and we want the bad guy to lose. In that sense, it validates what we feel when we see tragedies in the world around us. What really makes a difference is responding to these feelings and getting involved in the world–helping the underdogs, or taking on the Lakers of our own lives. Because, like any story, sports should inspire us to live better lives.

  4. Different Ben, your last line is a total winner. I completely agree. And I also agree that stories are an essential part of what’s compelling and inspiring about sports. But I guess I’d caution you against making claims for sports as an artistic equivalent to great literature. Sports are constrained by their competitive structure–someone has to win and someone has to lose–in a way that great art almost never is. In fact, I’d argue that many of the narrative themes that we attach to sports are part and parcel of the escapism that causes us to turn away from the world. Ideas like “good guys vs. bad guys” and “winners vs. losers” are exactly the kind of polar logic that most great art subverts and complicates. The world is just much more complex and nuanced than that.

    Even in your example of the Miracle on Ice I’d wager that its our desire for that easy narrative that caused us to interpret the game how we did; although we deeply wanted it to be so, the U.S. is/was much less of a scrappy underdog, and the Soviets much less of a monolith than the story led us to believe. This is why the obsession with winning–and attaching moralistic narratives to that obsession–can be so distorting and why I suggest we pay much closer attention to the celebratory aspects of actually playing the game, rather than making a fetish of the result. Celebrations, like sports, are not art. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable to us.

    Thanks so much for the very thoughtful comment.

  5. I liked this post alot but I can’t help but disagree. First, I struggle to connect sports as a celebration of human capabilites with the competitive structure of sports and virtually all of the analysis that we see in different news mediums. When we dissect the merits of Derrick rose as MVP, Love as an all star, or the playoff chances of the Lakers these all seem distinct and separate from any celebration of the human body. These all seem distinct from the celebration your post applauds and seem to more accurately represent the escapism you criticize.

    Second, I think the business structure of sports contradicts with your notion of sports as a celebration. How do the absurd salaries of NBA players and owners fit into the idea of celebration? Especially in a world filled with crushing poverty and natural disasters? Or the financial, media giants that profit off covering sports? It seems like these aspects of sports make the celebration just another part of the escapism your post criticizes.

    While I guess your post might not endorse all of these facets of sports, and I think that seeing sports as a celebration of human capabilities is both an interesting and potentially enlightening way to view sports, I still can’t really see any way that sports represents a celebration of human potential in it’s present form. I see sports as having value in a few limited ways.

    First, I think sports can act as an extremely visible microcosm of and forum for discussion over larger societal struggles – over labor and race for example. While it obviously isn’t always a perfect comparison (the salaries of players and the average person are very different), I think the struggles of figures like Jackie Robinson and Muhammed Ali undoubtedly played an important part in our racial history.

    Second, I think participation in sports has value for obvious reasons. I also think sports can serve as a bridge between people of different ideologies or cultural backgrounds (the actual value of this is much lower than the described however). FInally, I think there is some value in sports as pure entertainment. While I don’t endorse sports as escapism in the sense of paying attention to sports in lieu of prominent events, I don’t think that every one of our activities need to be centered on improving or becoming more knowledgeable of the world.

    These benefits however, do not justify the current financial structure of or attention given to sports. While I don’t agree with the conclusion of this post, it provides much needed attention needs to the alarming way that sports seems to distract from, rather than function alongside, world affairs.

  6. Dan, I agree with you on nearly every front. I agree that the majority of our discourse on pro sports is pretty myopic in its focus on winning and losing, in this or that team’s playoff chances, in this or that player’s MVP candidacy (although I do believe that these discussions can be infused with the socio-political content that you describe–Derrick Rose, for instance is an incredibly aesthetically and culturally interesting player). Part of this post was a call (which I’m sure will be immediately heeded by everybody) to look beyond this kind of discourse and analyze sports based on its real value.

    And I also agree that the institutional economic structure of college and pro sports is an insane, exploitive farce. This clearly, deserves serious, careful critique, some (but not enough) of which I’ve tried to do in this forum.

    But I also believe that, on the level of the games themselves, viewing and participating in sports at their highest level can be acts of great beauty and joy. The tension between the economic organization of the game and the viewing experience is a very delicate one for the thoughtful fan, but I know that there are moments when the game’s celebratory qualities have transcended the awful structures that house it.

    Perhaps you’re right that the game’s benefits do not outweigh its less savory elements. But I still believe that there is real value in investing a part of ourselves in sports when they are played as sublimely and passionately as they can be in the NBA. Thanks very much for the comment.

  7. Ben…I am blown away not just by your writing and ideas but by the level of the conversation you’ve initiated here and continued to expand upon. As I’ve been watching the games leading to the final four and pondering our ability to engage while all around us aspects of life and our world feel as if they are teetering on some crumbling cliff, you bring a thoughtful and nuanced perspective encouraging us to hold it all in celebration…the beautiful, horrible and inane contradiction. Thanks for this.

  8. Courtney Martin March 30, 2011 at 3:57 am

    At the risk of following a woman who shares my last name, I’d just like to add that I found this strikingly beautiful and important. This line will stick with me indefinitely: “When we celebrate properly, we don’t forget the world, we remember it.” I think there is something critical about embodiment here–the capacity to be truly in our bodies, in flow, in pure emotion. Sports gives us a direct line to all of that.

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