The following is a modified version of a post I wrote two years ago at the old Signs of the Times.
Tomorrow is the Super Bowl (yeah, like I needed to remind you!), and I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a sports fanatic. It all began when the Mariners had their miracle season in ’95, coming back from a 13 game deficit to win their first division title, then beating the hated Yankees in the division championship. Then Gonzaga had their own Cinderella season in ’99, rising from obscurity to reach the Elite Eight. Then even the Seahawks reached the Super Bowl in 2005 (good thing they lost or I might have had to find a new underdog to back)! Before long I had become one of those wackos I never understood, spending my weekends watching golf and tennis, checking ESPN.com far more often than I’d like to admit, even watching SportsCenter on occasion.
Yet, for all my enthusiasm, I have a hard time pinpointing exactly what it is about sports that I find so exciting. I mean, my life is filled with blessings – I have a good job, a great church, a wonderful wife and daughter. I’ve never jumped to my feet or pumped my fist in excitement over those things, yet I hardly give it a second thought while watching my favorite teams. Heck, I’m not even that picky – I’ll root for any underdog, in any sport, except maybe Curling. I can even set aside my hatred for all New York sports to root for the Giants tomorrow!
What is it about sports that connects to our emotions so powerfully? Perhaps it’s the skill–we cheer for the athletes at the top of their game because we wish we ourselves were so talented. Perhaps it’s the distraction–sports are just “real” enough to seem important, while just distant enough to provide an escape from the everyday. Or perhaps it’s only our “mirror neurons” playing tricks on us–our brains are wired to pretend we ourselves were performing the great feats we watch.
Probably it’s all of those things, but I wonder if it’s also something more. In cheering on our favorite teams, we aren’t just living vicariously; we are turning our attention away from ourselves. As spectators, it is always someone else we are cheering for, someone else we are excited for. Thus, whatever it is that draws us to cheer, we find that in doing so we become a little less selfish, a little less self-focused. And the same seems to be true of the athletes themselves–victory is always sweeter when it’s “for the team” (or the Gipper) than it is when it’s just for yourself.
In sports, then, our emotions are freed to reach their maximum because they are freed from the self. In a society that is so often focused on the autonomous individual, sports give us a glimpse (however small) of transcendence. Our emotions can run wild and free precisely because here, as in too few other places, they are focused outward. Perhaps our love for sports actually offers us a glimpse into our fundamental nature: we are made to live for each other.