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Sunday, January 25, 2015


Why do people love sports so much?  Even asking the question seems odd to many people. Sporting events are  popular all around the world, cutting through all demographics and cultures, with professional athletes making huge amounts of money and breathing the same rarified celebrity air that movie stars and pop stars do.  For most sports fans, their fandom is more a state of being than a choice; you might as well ask someone why they're right handed.
But ask I will.  Step back and take a look at professional sports objectively: here you have people cheering and feeling a deep emotional connection with a group of athletes who have been designated to represent a certain location.  Most of those screaming fans will never meet any of the players, many of whom do not even come from the place that they play for.  And every year, teams bring in new players for fans to cheer for, and the fans don't care who those players are as long as they're on your team and play well.  Fans even have the strange experience of cheering for one player one year, and then booing for that same player the next when he's traded to a rival team.
People like myself who aren't sports fans can be a bit overwhelmed by the level of interest and devotion people show, from fans sitting in freezing cold weather just to watch a game they could be watching on TV, to kids spending money on athletic playing cards, to even fights and riots between rival fans, that devotion at times seems downright crazy.  And while us non fans can rant about what a waste of time watching sports is, we're fighting a losing battle, with athletic events like the Superbowl and The World's Cup drawing enormous media attention every time  they arrive.

Boy, I hope their team won

But I ask again, why?  It would appear that an interest in sports is primal; some of the earliest and most primitive of human societies engaged in physical contests.  They probably served an important purpose at that time; our ancient ancestors were mainly hunters , and playing games that developed skills like spear throwing was a way for the hunters to keep themselves sharp and train younger members of the tribe.  Since those hunters were almost exclusively men, it also gave them a chance to display to the women the various physical attributes (speed, strength) that would make them a good provider and mate, which would someday lead to  the stereotype of the star quarterback that all the girls want to date.  Sports coming from mostly hunting training would also explain why there are so few truly famous female athletes (Oh sure, there are many women playing sports like basketball and soccer, but the possibility of a female athlete reaching the level of fame that, say,  Michael Jordan  or Tiger Woods have, is far from likely.)
Sports played another role in primitive societies in that they allowed rival tribes to compete in a non violent fashion when war was deemed too difficult.  That would explain the  regional ties that sports fans have with their teams, that strong sense of identification probably has its descendent from times when athletic contests really were important and success for a group of athletes meant success for the entire tribe.  So, while sports is not my thing, I don't think there's anything wrong with enjoying them, unless, of course, things go too far.

Pictured above, Minnesota hockey fans take things too far

However,  controversy  has recently hit the sports world in America.  Football, our most popular sport, is under attack.  Recently, something that should have always been obvious, has been proven; having 350lb men crush you into the ground repeatedly can cause both physical and mental damage, no matter how much padding you're wearing.  While injury have always been a part of the sport, it is know known that the National Football League has been lying to players for years over the extent of those injuries, with some people going so far as to compare the NFL with tobacco companies that lied about the effects of tobacco for years.  A settlement of around nine hundred million dollars was finally paid out to some eighteen thousand players.
But even with that settlement behind it, the NFL is still in trouble.  While it continues to rake in billions of dollars every year, its future is in doubt, and the game's attempt at damage control continues. Thankfully, the days of defensive players trying to help their team by making particularly vicious tackles on star players to try and take them out of the game are no more in football. Recently, the NFL  tried to pass new rules on defensive tackling that avoid the head shots that can cause deeply damaging concussions.  While this is understandable,  it seems contradictory in a sport where fans cheer for brutal tackles and pile ons.  
How does the future of the NFL hold? Since we know now the deep risks involved in the sport, how many parents will let their children play?  The New York Times reports that a recent Bloomberg poll found that half of all Americans do not want their children playing football.  Are a few moments of possible glory and excitement worth the risks of terrible injuries? Another part of the NFL's damage control is holding group meetings aimed at mother's trying to convince them that the game is now safe.  Also, in what may qualify as the world's most obvious move, more and more children's football leagues are moving away from tackle games to touch or flag football. (It seems amazing to me that people actually think it's a good idea for children, some well under the age of 12, to play a full contact sport).  But, at the end of the day, the NFL admits that a stunning 30% of players will suffer from serious mental issues in their life times, and there's really no way around that. It's no surprise that  best selling author (and former football fan) Malcom Gladwell recently called football a "moral abomination", and even legendary tough guy coach Mike Ditka, on a recent episode of HBO's Real Sports, admitted he wouldn't let his own sons play football, simply saying "I think the risk isn't worth the reward."
Personally, I hope football's days are numbered, and that it dwindles in popularity until it essentially dies out, like the once popular sport of boxing has slowly been doing.  There's enough excitement in baseball, basketball and other sports for people to leave the more vicious sports behind.