14 January 2006

It's About Caring: Why Sports Matter

The New England Patriots have just lost to the Denver Broncos and Tom Brady lost his first playoff game in 11 tries. The Patriots won the Super Bowl three of the last four years; they were going for the first three-peat in NFL history. But not this year. Why should I care?

I missed last year's Super Bowl victory by the Patriots over the Eagles. I was on a boat in Indonesia, with a group of scientists and donors and the Swiss ex-pat boat captain. I remember the night: no radio, no way of knowing the score or the outcome. And the boat captain saying to me, "Hey, you're an environmental guy, why do you care about football? Why care about any sport?" And the underlying question, why root for a bunch of overpaid, over-hyped guys overloaded on testosterone running around in a decidedly environmentally unfriendly pursuit?

My answer was and is that sports help you learn to care. Your affiliation with and allegiance to a team is learned at an early age, right when you are deciding what matters and what you care about. I care what the outcome is, want my team to win, and am disappointed when they fall short or don't do well.

One of my heroes, A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late commissioner of Major League Baseball and president of Yale, scholar and poetry enthusiast, said it best in his essay about the Red Sox,

It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

That is what caring about sports is all about, and it is related to caring about anything that is "abiding" and "resists corrosion." And I venture here to say that when you learn to care about sporting events or teams it connects you to the larger ethic of caring. That if you can care about a seemingly meaningless venture, with all its hype and hyperbole, all its illusion and artifice, you connect to a vast web of caring that goes beyond games. To me, through a life of caring about teams like the Red Sox and Patriots and Bruins (remember hockey?), my caring about such outcomes demonstrates an empathy for those things outside myself.

I can have no influence on the outcome of a game such as the one played tonight or those played last fall by the former World Champion Red Sox against their paler hose compatriots from the Windy City. I can barely influence the outcome of my son's Little League team, even as a coach. But the illusion is that if I care enough, if I care more, that somehow, we will triumph, somehow we will emerge victorious and all will be right in the world.

A friend of mine is also a Red Sox rooter and conservationist. He once remarked that the two were natural together. "If we can win the World Series, I feel like somehow we can save the world too," he said. "And it is that hope that keeps me going, that springs eternal."

Hopes are easily dashed, such as the hopes of Patriots fans everywhere tonight, whether lifers like me or of carpetbaggers from the past two seasons. Nevertheless, tonight, in Denver, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Seattle and in the other cities represented by those who remain, hope still takes hold. Moreover, I am convinced that even if a little bit of that hope, that caring, transfers to the concerns of the world, we just might win the true Super Bowl of the 21st century: the very survival of our home field advantage.

I will leave you with the closing words of Bart Giamatti's essay,

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

Categories: ,

No comments: