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.