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Sports as fantasy - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Sports as fantasy
I was chatting about this last week at a_p_'s boards, but I didn't think it out completely. Thought I'd have a go.

My thesis: Sports are imaginary.

To give credit where credit is due, this, like so many of my thoughts, is Tolkien-inspired. In "On Fairy-Stories," he writes:

A real enthusiast for cricket is in the enchanted state: Secondary Belief. I, when I watch a match, am on the lower level. I can achieve (more or less) willing suspension of disbelief, when I am held there and supported by some other motive that will keep away boredom: for instance, a wild, heraldic, preference for dark blue rather than light. This suspension of disbelief may thus be a somewhat tired, shabby, or sentimental state of mind, and so lean to the "adult." I fancy it is often the state of adults in the presence of a fairy-story. They are held there and supported by sentiment (memories of childhood, or notions of what childhood ought to be like); they think they ought to like the tale. But if they really liked it, for itself, they would not have to suspend disbelief: they would believe—in this sense.

This was like a great big light going on in my head--of course. As someone who has never been able to muster enthusiasm for a sport during its regular play, but gets mildly interested in her home team during the playoffs, I realized that of course--it's all about the heraldry. Our guys go out there and play against their guys. We're writing scripts in our heads, and the main difference between baseball and Harry Potter is that HP only has a single writer, while baseball has two, who are trying to write opposite scripts, and their players work out which one wins.

Sports fandom is a great deal like sf/f fandom--intense, drama-ridden, and totally baffling to outsiders. (I imagine that some people have the same reaction to hearing "Snape" or "Hermione" that I have to hearing "Nomar" or "Manny Ramirez"--"Um... I know the names... baseball/Harry Potter, right?") They collect statistics the way we collect obscure canon facts and Easter eggs from JKR's website.

But sports are real!, I can hear people saying. Fantasy is made-up.

Let's switch to an analogy of a movie. You can touch the people in it, you know the backstage stuff, there are inside jokes, bits of it could be put on display in the Smithsonian... it's real in the sense of having some physical reality. Does it have consequences in reality? Sure--it puts money in the bank for a lot of people (or takes it out, if they're fans rather than participants). The presence of a hit movie makes a big difference to theater owners and toy companies. Long-lasting friendships are formed talking about it. It's all secondary--the existence of the movie itself doesn't directly impact the world (though it could be argued--correctly, imho--that the ideas contained in stories slowly shape human society over the millennia more than any other force on the planet).

By the same token, sports is full of real people, all playing their assigned roles. We find out about them backstage, when they're not busy playing The Short Stop or The Tight End or The Guard. It's an industry that employs a lot of people. There are lots of auxilliary benefits, like subsidiary industries and intangible things like friendships formed. But the stakes themselves are not real--no one eats less if the city's team loses. No one gets fewer reproductive opportunities. No one is shot, no government topples. (Though, come to think of it, in a lot of ways, governments are the ultimate achievement of human imagination--our ability to imagine ourselves as one vast tribe sharing materials.) We win pennants, trophies, bragging rights. It's totally symbolic.

This is clearest of all in the Olympics, when even nations which are at war with one another take it off the battlefield and onto the playing field. All those old loyalties are there, but they are expressed in purely symbolic, created terms. Which is why people who are interested in increasing the amount of violence in the world dislike the Olympics, imho; every time we're able to pull it off, we show that it's possible for the human imagination to replace deadly rivalry with a non-lethal kind of competition.

Humans are pretty tribal in nature. It's a survival instinct--if we all band together to protect the water hole from invaders, each of us individual has a better chance at getting a drink. There's no special reason that we couldn't just take individual turns drinking, except that it never happens, and weaker folk tend to get pushed out of they way, leaving only a bunch of thugs beating each other up, and that's no good. So we get tribal. Then we're able to imagine different, shifting boundaries, different tribes for different purposes. Orson Scott Card describes finding identity as accepting and rejecting membership in communities: "I am this, this, and this, but I am definitely not that, that, and that." (Hang on, I am still talking about sports; I just do it often and need to work up to it.)

Now, in quite a large part of the world, tribe is an entirely created concept. Eg, I'm a Bostonian. I totally identify as a Bostonian, even though I was born in Buffalo. (Okay, I get a mixed up identity when those two cities are for whatever reason at odds.) Yes, my ancestors did originally come from Boston, but they set out for the wilds of Western New York right after the American Revolution. Coming here was coming back to the Old Country. (Don't get me started on my desire to visit Cranbrook, Kent--or Broadstairs or Deal or Biddenden--or even poor little Tipton, West Midlands, just because of some messed up attachment to the Even-Older-Country. Let me go on long enough, and I'll get nostalgic for Viking ships.) But you know what? I've lived here for five damned years. Five. Not three hundred and seventy. Most of my blood is in the earth about four hundred miles from here. I barely know anyone in town, and I don't know my way around most of the neighborhoods. It's a created identity. Most people here have created identities (and I expect that's true everywhere in the world, since we all come fresh to any place, no matter how long our families have been there). But it's important, because it's a question of deciding who we are (and who we aren't).

Sports teams (toldja I'd come back) serve as a heraldic banner for our created identities. So do historical sites, lists of Dead Famous People From Here, landmarks, and half a dozen other things, but sports gain fans like ongoing series gain fans, because they are ongoing stories. "Reverse the Curse!" "Squish the Fish!" Here's a by-G-d goal for the community, stakes to play for, pennants to win, dragons to slay, whatever. And all of those old instincts to protect the water hole suddenly have a mostly harmless outlet. We revel in it, and exercise it. (To refer to Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, on the catharsis of horror, no, I don't mean "exorcise.") We know it's not real--when New York was attacked, using planes that flew out of Boston, the two traditional sports rivals didn't assume that it was out of city-to-city animosity... though the first Yanks game at Fenway afterward had Red Sox fans giving the Yankees a standing ovation.

Why? Most of the Yankees aren't from New York any more than most of the Sox are from Boston.

But it's the symbolic way in which the two cities/tribes express themselves to each other.

And it's pure imagination. Baseball doesn't mean anything, the players are traded back and forth until their loyalty must feel like pulled taffy.

It's a story, being written as fans watch.

And that, I think, is why sports fans are as wild and wacky as sf/f fans, although the two groups so rarely cross paths.

PS: Edit in--I think the main difference is that sports are a symbolized representation of what we are now, while sf/f speculate about what is permanent (fantasy) or what is possible (sf).

9 comments or Leave a comment
siegeofangels From: siegeofangels Date: October 19th, 2004 03:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
. . . yeah, we're nutso.

The fandom I'm most involved in other than HP is the Detroit Red Wings (hockey), and I understand what you're getting at. The Wings, for me, are a way for me to hold onto my ties to home: right now I'm Washington, DC, but I can talk to people from Detroit or Oklahoma or Finland and feel that sense of community in a way that's similar to the affinity I feel with other HP (or Buffy, or whatever) fans.

The only thing I'd argue is that at least for the players and coaches, it's not just a story. Nothing bad happens to me if my team loses a game, or has a bad season, but it's entirely likely that the goalie, coach, or GM will get the axe.

It is a story to us--we follow it and we get to invest some emotion in something that doesn't really matter--but there are actual people making up the sports story in a way that there isn't actually a Harry running around saving England. And in that way, we can manipulate the HP-verse the way we can't a major sport: if I really, really want to write a post-apocalyptic Draco/Ginny Everybody's Dead fic, I can; but I can't, say, trade a bucket of pucks for Jeremy Roenick, or make Bob Goodenow (players' union) and Gary Bettman (commissioner) sign a new collective bargaining agreement tomorrow and make there be a season this fall.
From: a_p_ Date: October 19th, 2004 05:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
The only thing I'd argue is that at least for the players and coaches, it's not just a story. Nothing bad happens to me if my team loses a game, or has a bad season, but it's entirely likely that the goalie, coach, or GM will get the axe...there are actual people making up the sports story in a way that there isn't actually a Harry running around saving England...

I was thinking about this while I was reading; that there is a "real" component to sports that goes hand-in-hand with the more mythic stuff for a lot of people. For the actual participants, of course, but even for me as a fan. I played sports growing up, and I feel strongly that this is a big part of the reason I'm such a sports fan today. Participating in sports is a lot of fun, and I think you do really gain the benefits you hear about (learning about sportsmanship, competitiveness, teamwork, dealing with failures and disappointments, etc.), and I think living through these experiences vicariously is part of being a fan, possibly as much as living vicariously through larger-than-life heroes that represent our homeland against mythic enemies.

I'm not denying that there are larger, older, more communal aspects to the devotion to sports, certainly in some rivalries (like the Yanks/Red Sox)...but I think there's a more concrete component to the popularity and deep attachment of the populace to sports that's at least as important as the other stuff.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 19th, 2004 05:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
(Just a note--for me, promoting sports to the level of imagination is, in fact, a promotion. ;))

I spent my teen years in drama club, learning teamwork that way, and I guess I'm not sure where the difference is. It's all a show in a lot of ways, a story we're all telling one another. The people behind the scenes have a story that they're telling one another as well, and it's slightly different from the one they'te telling the audience.

As to the ability to control the real people in sports... well, I avoid real-person fanfic (because, frankly, ick), but there is Hamm twin and Olympic swim team slash, and that's just on my f-list. And as far as costuming goes, no one I've seen at an sf con (including the whack-jobs in S/M costumes in January) tops the guys who go to January football games in Buffalo in nothing but jeans and blue and red make-up on their chests. :)
From: a_p_ Date: October 19th, 2004 07:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, not to be argumentative (well, maybe a little ;)), but is there anything we do that isn't a story we're telling one another? At least anything with an agreed upon set-up, with rules, etc.? Is it possible for me, as a 6-year-old T-baller to just play baseball? Or is there nothing concrete about it beyond my entering a sports-related world of story and myth?

To argue that all the games we play -- that pretty much everything we do -- is part of a larger story is fine with me, to a certain degree...but at some point, a baseball game is just a baseball game, even if someone somewhere finds it necessary to write some Schilling-Pedro-Lowe 3-way slash to express...their great love of the game? ;)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 19th, 2004 07:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
but is there anything we do that isn't a story we're telling one another?

Well... that's the interesting question, isn't it? I'm inclined to think that most of culture is a product of human imagination, and a triumph thereof.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: October 19th, 2004 09:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well... that's the interesting question, isn't it? I'm inclined to think that most of culture is a product of human imagination, and a triumph thereof.
I'd have to agree with that. Stories are how humans deal with the world. We make up all these little tales about what happens if we do this or that or the other thing, and by doing so we make the world and other people predictable. If it's predictable, we can have security; if we have security, we can get on with the business of living, i.e., raising the next generation (by having them, teaching them, or...whatever.) Culture, religion, sport, it's all about making sure we know the sun will rise tomorrow. Somewhere.

But at the same time, it's also just a game of baseball/cricket/rugby/whatever. It's both things.

Terry Pratchett expresses all this much better than me in The Science of Discworld II: The Globe. As a fantasy writer writing it with scientists, he has a great grip on both how fantasy works and how the humand mind works. Very good reading.
From: peppa_minto Date: October 20th, 2004 12:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hah. Interesting.

There is no spoon, Neo.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: October 20th, 2004 01:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Makes total sense. I'm a fourth-generation Cubs fan, and if the Cubs aren't evocative of at least half-a-dozen fantasy themes, I'll cross over to the White Sox. I swear to God, when the Bartman thing happened, it was like watching some sort of prophetic curse coming out and verifying its own existence.

And yes, I am rooting for the Red Sox this year - fellow-sufferer types and all that - and if they can break their curse, hey, who knows about us? :).
trinity_clare From: trinity_clare Date: October 20th, 2004 08:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have a confession to make.

I am a die-hard Wisconsin football fan. Badgers and Packers.

I tend to have shifting loyalties between the two of them, because they never seem to have good seasons at the same time. For example, right now, the Packers are off to there worst start in recent memory while the Badgers are undefeated. I'm working at a concession stand at the Badger game on Sunday because I want to be there. I won't necessarily get to watch any of the game, but I'll have been there. And if we win, I get to brag about it.

But like earlier people said: It might be just a story, but it has real repercussions. Wins bring the whole city/campus together. Losses devastate everyone. And if you want real consequences, here's one: If the Badgers win a big game, students get drunk and try to knock over the goalpost. Then they go riot in the streets and people get hurt.

And here's another example of feeling like it affects us: UW campus police think the Big Ten gods are smiling on them. Halloween weekend is the Badgers' bye week, so they don't play. If there was a home game, more people would be in town for it, and the Halloween riots would be even worse than they usually are. This year there's no game at all, which is terrific luck for the law enforcement.

And I'm rambling. Sorry.
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