I did not watch the recent Olympics, unlike the five billion people on the planet who did. I don’t follow football, soccer, hockey, baseball, or basketball. I don’t play games of any sort, not cards or Scrabble, video games, chess, backgammon, or golf. I do not compete, or watch competitive activity. I was an avid sports fan until I was about seventeen, in the manner of the average boy, but somehow failed to make the transition to adult sports fandom. I don’t really know why. A shrink might say that it’s a reaction to a hypercompetitive family. My father was an all-state high school end in football and all my cousins were star athletes. I learned how to play baseball competently in self-defense but as soon as I left for college I hung up my glove for good.
I recall once coming over on the ferry from Bainbridge Island, which is west of Seattle, across Eliot Bay, on a Sunday when the Seahawks were going to play. This ferry turned out to be the one that the fans had to take to get to the game on time, and the ship was jam-packed with Seahawks fans. They were the kind of fans that wear the team colors, and put foam sea hawk heads on their heads, and paint their faces with blue and green stripes. A number of people had portable TVs so that they could watch the game on the screen as well as in real life. The team was doing well that year and they were all noisy and happy. I recall thinking that I must be really strange not to able to do this, that it was a kind of autism, to be totally uninterested in something so very important to my fellow humans and the average American. I recall thinking about what the Dalai Lama had said after witnessing his first (and last, one supposes) pro football game: “Very interesting, but I believe there would less violence if each team had its own ball.” Just so, your Holiness.
I read the Times in the old-fashioned broadsheet way and during the Olympics it was impossible to avoid photographs of dramatic moments—the winning goal, say, or the winner crossing the finish line. But my eye always goes to the losers, their anguish and despair revealed to the whole world. I get it about winning, how great and all, but my heart is always with the losers. As a result, at games, I enjoy neither winning nor losing, so why bother? I suppose I could play solo against a computer, but when I’ve done this in the past, something in me always said, “During this session of Grand Theft Auto II I could be learning Chinese and eventually be able to read Li Po in the original,” and I always give up on level one.
This view of games is not meant as an invidious statement on my part suggesting cultural superiority to the fan: far from it. Brilliant people, geniuses, have been and are sports-lovers, and the near-universalism of sport argues for it being a basic aspect of the human condition. As I say, it must be a kind of mental/emotional defect in me. Oddly enough, I always read the sports section assiduously, even though I have no idea of what they’re talking about most of the time, and although I don’t care. I just feel it’s necessary to connect me with humanity, like someone who has lost faith but still attends church to please his family. Also, it allows me to avoid solecisms, like saying brightly, “How about those Mariners!”
On the other hand, there is something awful about competition. It’s true that competition is ingrained in us, as it is in all organic life. It’s one of the drivers of evolution, of course, and of cultural development, and since we, in the West, are the winning society (so far), we praise competition inordinately. Our economic and education systems are vast machines for separating winners from losers, sometimes at the cost of not doing very well what economic and education systems are supposed to do—creating general wealth and ensuring a cultured and politically competent population. But we all understand that mere competition is not sufficient to succeed in life, not if one is a member of a social species. Cooperation is just as important, just as inherently rewarding. Much of the joy of sports comes from being team members, or, by extension a fan, like those folks on the ferry. Esprit de corps is real. Patriotism is real. Religion is certainly real to its adherents.
So humans have to get their competitive and cooperative ya-yas satisfied simultaneously and the way we typically do it in our culture is via the team-rival relationship. The world is structured as Us against Them, on a spectrum that goes from a neighborhood softball game all the way to genocide. I don’t think it’s an accident that the great religious leaders have been hard on competition and encouraging of cooperation, even though organized religion has been as competitive as any other human structure. I believe that just as the end-point of competition is murder, the endpoint of cooperation is love.
From time to time societies based on love have emerged, but they have always flickered out or succumbed to the temptations of competition. One of the projects I have on file is a fictional exploration of a society in which each team has its own football.