Monday, February 20, 2012

Fantasy Sports and the Destruction of Awe

Sports have been a big part of my life ever since I came to America. I spent afternoons playing basketball and football with my friends, of course, but there was an exponentially larger amount of time spent watching games, checking scores in the paper, and listening to chatter on the radio—the whole business of following professional sports. I have been thinking lately about how my personality was shaped by this investment, and what an enormous role sports continue to play in the lives of most Americans, particularly men. Also, I want to tell you about why I hate fantasy sports.

I was eight when I arrived here. Within a few years, I became devoted to following professional basketball, football, and baseball in a way that I had never followed cricket in India. In America, I watched as many games on TV as I could, and on most nights I tucked a radio beneath my pillow and struggled to stay awake until the end of the Orioles or Bullets game (they are the Wizards now, and as uncompetitive as ever).

The next morning, I would open the sports section and read almost all of it. Obsessions began to coalesce around certain teams, players, and races. One year, I became deeply invested in the duel between David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal for the regular season scoring title. I was rooting for Robinson—the quiet and classy player—and I remember being elated when he scored 71 points on the last game of the season to secure the title.

I shunned the obvious stars like O'Neal and Michael Jordan. Instead, I followed second-tier notables who I decided were in some way morally superior to the stars. Tim Brown and the Raiders were one mysterious obsession. For several years, I desperately rooted for the Trailblazers to beat the Bulls in the Finals, which never happened. I fixated on Terry Porter, the Blazers' point guard, who had a strangely-shaped head and a fantastically accurate three-point shot. He hustled; he was a good ball distributor, calm and never showy; he never argued with refs or got into fights. He played the game, I decided, the right way. All of my favorites were finesse players, soft-spoken, who usually fell in the end to more determined and (I thought) ruthless teams.

Sometimes, when I think about the time and emotion I spent on sports, I feel like I must have wasted half of my childhood. Lately, though, it occurred to me that something valuable happened during those years, that I was building a personality and a place in the world using the tools at my disposal. Already, in my choice of idols, I was feeling out the kinds of success that, at my best, I would be capable of. Other children, of course, chose differently. Locked up in the bubble of modern childhood, we all found heroes to act for us—with us, it sometimes seemed—as a way of developing an identity and a sense of consequence.

“Recognize the natural power in the man, as men did in the past,” D.H. Lawrence writes in Apocalypse, “and give it homage, then there is a great joy, an uplifting, and a potency passes from the powerful to the less powerful.” On dozens of nights, this energy passed into me, both joy and despair, through a television or a crackly radio, with an intensity that has rarely been equaled in later life.

When Jordan pushed Bryon Russell at the end of Game 6 to get off his jumpshot, and no foul was called, I learned something about the privileges of the powerful. When Jeffrey Maier interfered with what should have been a long Yankees fly-out, I learned something too. The play was called a home run, and probably cost the Orioles the game. I was in a rage for days, but some knowledge started to move inside me about how nothing in the real world was going to live up to my theoretical ideals of purity. Obviously, these lessons were coming through the world as well, but in sports, as on stage, the inessential drops away, and how much more memorable the action becomes! Certain games and plays become talismans for a lifetime: instructive, illustrative, sometimes beautiful.

As I got older, my sports fixation weakened. I left my hometown; I became more able to influence the circumstances of my life; and I stopped forming as many profound relationships with players and teams. Increased free agent movement was maybe part of it. I also no longer had as much time to devote to following sports. With less information, the moral qualities I attributed to these players felt more like fantasies, unsupported by their behavior on the field or court. So I went in search of other heroes.

Sports were always there, though, in the background. I still like the sense of community they can create with very different kinds of people. A more authentic foundation for community would probably be better, but, well, as in childhood, you take what you can get. A regional identity based on sports is better than none at all. Now that I've been in Boston for a while, I even have the stability and information to form new identifications. Tim Wakefield is a hero of mine (recently forced into retirement by the increasingly soulless Red Sox); so is Ray Allen (still playing with the Celtics, also increasingly soulless, as demonstrated by the awful Kendrick Perkins trade).

Even though I still care about a few teams, I've never returned to the kind of attachments I had when I was a child. A few years go, though, at the request of friends, I joined some fantasy leagues and started to follow baseball and football more closely again. This is not uncommon; as far as I can tell fantasy sports are becoming an American obsession. Some people I know spend as large a portion of their free time following sports as I once did. The spirit, though, is very different.

I suppose most people know how fantasy works by now: you choose players from real teams to form an imaginary one. The complex network of interrelationships in every game is reduced, by league consent, to a handful of tracked categories. The players' performance in the real world then generates points for you, and you compete against other players in the league based on this statistical ground.

This is fun at first. People watch games with the computer in front of them; the stats update every few minutes. Very soon, though, as anyone who has participated in fantasy knows, it starts to change how you interact with the players and the sport. The game begins to appear through a lens of numbers. You start to root for meaningless things (late touchdowns, inconsequential yardage), watch games in which you have no interest, and weaken emotional attachments to players as you cut and bench them. There is no such thing as an honorable defeat or a shameful victory in fantasy football, only larger or smaller numerical margins. It is roughly analogous to reading a book to count how many times the word "the" appears, or counting the number of B flats in a symphony, and then comparing your total to an opponent. You destroy the point of the exercise for the sake of ending up with a number.

Why are so many people participating in something that works to drain the emotional significance out of sports? It took me some time to think of an explanation, and here it is. I think this is actually the whole point of the endeavor.

Spectators are devoting a great deal of their lives to following the ups and downs of a group of people who are, for the most part, stronger, more graceful, better paid, and more respected than they are. What relationship can one have with such idols? Well, you can bow before them. This is what children do. I think this is healthy, especially if the heroes are genuine. David Foster Wallace's beautiful essay, "Roger Federer as Religious Experience," is an example of how this can occur as an adult. The feeling of awe is more sophisticated, more analytical, but it is awe all the same—it is a species of what I felt as a child. And it is the only way you can justify spending any part of your life watching strangers play games. The same applies to being a spectator of an art form. If you aren't looking for gods, and willing to pay homage when you find them, you are wasting your time.

To love a hero requires humility, though—the willingness to kneel, the consciousness of one's own inferiority. In a paradoxical way, it requires strength. The problem is that most Americans, especially American men, find kneeling an impossible posture to maintain. They are drawn to the spectacle of power on a grand stage, but are uncomfortable with worship or even sincere admiration, which acknowledges that someone is, in a profound and genuine way, better than you. At the one football game I went to recently, I was amazed at how much abuse was heaped on the players the instant a few plays went wrong, only to change back to cheering when things went well (all of this noise blurs together on television).

This crowd, I realized, resented its own idols. They were uncomfortable with their own adulation. All across our society, you can observe people acting out this anxiety. Listen to sports radio and you will hear an endless parade of know-it-alls who put themselves in the position of the general manager, suggesting trades and line-up changes. On television, the commentary is increasingly devoted to ranking plays and players, which is not the same as acknowledging superiority. To arrange things in an order of merit is a way to assuage a sense of insecurity through control—to place yourself above the people under consideration and move them around like pieces on a board. I know this because I used to enjoy making such lists.

This is the appeal of fantasy sports: to become a listmaker. Then you can push around what were once heroes and reduce them to sets of numbers, which are then used to achieve meaningless victories over your peers. It is the epitome of what Stephen Harrod Buhner calls the statistical mentality, which of course invaded real sports before the virtual ones. The hero of Moneyball, for example, is a manager who makes moves and trades based on computer-based statistical analysis, although it is unclear why this is heroic rather than merely clever (the movie insists on the former).

The players on such a team become irrelevant; all of the prestige goes to the coordinator and his computer sidekick, which is exactly the appeal of fantasy football. This is part of a larger trend of withdrawing admiration from the people directly involved in an activity—those who actually do things and make things—and transferring it to their coordinators. The problem is that there can be no beauty or courage or grace in coordination. To focus on such activity is to distance yourself from everything that makes a performance meaningful.

You do achieve something by creating this distance, though; you abandon the possibility of awe and instead experience a sense of phony power. One of the scenarios I've seen in several new ads is an ordinary fan berating a player for his poor fantasy performance.

A quote from Goethe: “The only way in which we can come to terms with the great superiority of another person is love.” Randall Jarrell added a perceptive modification: “But we can also come to terms with superiority, with true Excellence, by denying that such a thing as Excellence can exist; and, in doing so, we help to destroy it and ourselves.”

Jarrell, as an American, knew that something needed to be added to the quote. It is the danger in our otherwise noble egalitarian rhetoric: because power flows in both directions, anything we refuse to revere eventually becomes less worthy of reverence, and finally not even worth paying attention to.

Maybe this seems like too much weight to put on sports. Certainly we should all spend less time sitting on our asses. Still, when I think back to the intensity of my childhood memories, I feel like there was something of value in the way I cared and followed and obsessed. Even today, I can still be stunned into admiration by what human beings are capable of. Some of the most inspiring tennis I have ever seen has been played in the last few years; the football playoffs from this past year were incredible too. These are some of our society's few collectively shared pleasures, and in the right spirit they are genuine ones. Shut off the computer; try not to ruin it.


Thursday said...

[T]he age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold the generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.

-Edmund Burke

Akshay Ahuja said...

Hello Thursday: thank you for quote. I have been meaning to read some Burke, who I keep running across.

I must admit that I bristled at the term "dignified obedience" (I am, after all, still an American.) It brought to mind nostalgia for a hereditary aristocracy which is supposed to receive reverence whether it possesses any worthy qualities or not.

But the idea of an freedom existing in a certain kind of servitude; there is something very deep and true there. Many thanks for reading - it's always nice to hear from you,


Andrea D. said...


This was a really engaging piece! I have to admit I am clueless about fantasy sports and am pretty disillusioned with the pro sports world today, but I did also get really into certain teams and players as a kid (the '86 Mets, the late 80's Celtics, the Denver Broncos when they had Elway).

I'm thinking about your question about the missing humility a lot of fans show and I think it relates to the way sometimes the admiration of a player's excellence is more about 'living through' that person rather than 'looking up' to them. It's like the players become our proxies and their excellence at making three pointers or winning the game (somehow) represents us in the world- so, in that logic, it's almost easy to get frustrated and mad when they represent us poorly. It was definitely part of the fun when I was a kid. ...There was a time when I would practice basketball on my own (at 11, 12 yrs. old) and pretend I was Larry Bird- I wasn't any good at basketball but I did try to take my fan idolizing to the next level and imitate!