Why do I care? Why do I care so much? Why do I care this much? I’ve asked myself that after watching every sporting event of my conscious lifetime. It doesn’t matter if it’s losing the Super Bowl on a buzzer-beating field goal or being blown out in Spring Training, I still care… so much.
I’m not the only one who cares this much. In fact, ever since humans could find anything to compete over, they have cared about it. In the Byzantine Empire, the feud between the rival Blue and Green chariot racing teams got so bad that in 501 C.E., Greens ambushed the Blues and killed 3,000 of them in an amphitheater in Constantinople. No fandom would commit such atrocities today (well…except maybe Philly fans), but there are still examples of sports causing extreme violence in modern times. Take the Malice at the Palace in 2004, the assassination of Columbian soccer player Andrés Escobar, or the Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot of 2011. Even the kindest nation in the world couldn’t handle a Game Seven loss.
It’s great to know that my passion has company, but I still want to know why I care so much. In my view, sports are inherently zero-sum. There is a “my city against yours” mentality, where only one can come out on top. Only one team can win in the end, no matter what happens.
While it can be fun to talk about sports as a grueling tribunal of the human form, we have to understand that it is still entertainment. LeBron James is no different than Katherine Hepburn or David Bowie. All three of them excelled so greatly at their craft that we went out of our way to see them perform because it entertained us so much.
Sports, like all art forms, is an imitation of the human experience. In this case, that experience is conflict. Even though they are not a literal battle, they can bring out both pure hate and genuine love from fans. Thankfully, we are thousands of years away from the Greens killing thousands of Blues in Byzantium, but modern sports can still capture that feeling, with everyone hoping they can come out on top. I care so much because that’s the way that sports are supposed to work.
Sports are also magical in that neither the audience nor the participants know the outcome before it occurs. When Luke Skywalker is flying through the trenches of the Death Star the audience waits in anticipation, in the unknowing. The whole time, however, both Mark Hamil and George Lucas know exactly what’s going to happen. Everyone from the line producers to the sound engineers knows what’s going to happen. The audience and the creators are not on the same page. When Clayton Kershaw sets up to throw a curveball he finds out the result at the same time the audience does. Sports is less of a meticulously choreographed Broadway performance than it is freewheeling improvisational jazz. It’s a communal experience where no one knows what will happen and everyone, not just the audience, finds out at the same time.
Sports exist solely because of their fans and their community. Watching sports without crowds of fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic has been illuminating; as much as I love to watch pure baseball, I’ve realized that I also love watching the crowd jump out of the way of foul balls, taunt the opposing pitcher, or sit in the stands just hoping that they can somehow will their team to victory if they want it hard enough. Would Dave Roberts’ steal in 2004 have meant as much as it did if there weren’t 30,000 Red Sox fans standing on their feet at midnight? Sports is an interactive entertainment form that exists because we have made it exist and want it to exist. To me, it’s the greatest community building tool humanity has ever come up with.
Why do I care so much? Because sports are built to turn watchers into participants, whether through reaching out to our most aggressive and competitive tendencies, or building up a generational community, or simply through the great sense of not knowing.
Rocky D’Antonio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.