This year I had the privilege of attending Game 3 of the American League Division Series. Now, I’ve been a Yankees fan my whole life, having cherished Derek Jeter since I was five, and I’ve definitely been to my fair share of Yankee games. But from the outset, this game was different; it had an exaggerated feel to it. The stands seemed more packed, the lights seemed brighter, and the grass seemed greener. There was also the deafening sound of the home crowd cheering on their team. As is tradition, the Bleacher Creatures, a select group of fans sitting in the outfield stands, chanted the names of each Yankee before the first pitch. I had the privilege of sitting next to a particularly theatrical group of Yankee loyalists, four older men. They reeked of beer and stood chanting the whole game, jumping up and down while spitting profusely. It all felt so dramatized, so much passion being put into one game. Despite my lifelong fandom, I clearly did not possess the kind of fervor that seemed to possess everyone around me. So I asked myself, why do seemingly insignificant sports drive us to such extreme reactions? Why do we care so much?
The first, and most obvious, answer is that sports are a relief from our daily lives. They allow us to focus on something besides our everyday jobs. In reality, though, there are many different ways to accomplish this sense of distraction. Movies, for example, are an easy two hour trip to an alternate universe. Yet, a sporting event, the Super Bowl, is arguably the biggest event televised each year. Even if you just open a copy of the New York Post, you will find a 25-30 page sports section but only about 10 pages covering movie or television reviews. So why have sports become our distraction of choice?
In his essay The Green Fields of the Mind, Bart Giamatti, the ex-commissioner of baseball, explained how some people needed “to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game.” We need something to latch on to, something that we can follow every day and can give us a sense of consistency. Movies cannot provide this consistency because after two hours, they’re over, and we go back in the real world. But sports, however, give us something to invest in on a daily basis, something to follow night in and night out for an entire season. They provide us with a “hope of illusion.”
The culture around sports also creates a sense of community. We play sports in teams, talk sports at the dinner table, and watch sports in bars. They provide a shared experience. Movies and video games are, for the most part, individual experiences. At the movie theatre, it is quiet, and everyone runs their own internal monologue concerning what’s happening on screen. Most of my sports memories, however, surround the experiences I have had with other people, whether it was rooting with different fans at a game or in my backyard playing catch with my dad. For me, everything seems to be heightened when you share it with someone else. At American universities, for example, we hitch much of our pride on the performance of our sports teams. Schools like Alabama, Michigan, and many other big conference schools schedule entire weekends around their team’s big football or basketball game. Even at Cornell, an Ivy League school that is not known for its sports prowess, homecoming has become a school holiday. We dedicate an entire day to supporting a football team that hasn’t won more than five games in over ten years. We do this all because it gives us a chance to support our school. Our sports teams become a reflection of ourselves, and we root for and to be proud of ourselves.
Sports are a transcendent aspect of our society. Rather than a product we consume and then discard, sports are woven into our cultural tradition. From childhood memories to college tailgates to Thanksgiving football marathons, sports give us a reason to get together and celebrate. As we worry about our jobs, or school, or anything else we have to stress about, our lives can become sporadic and overwhelming. We want something to give us a sense of constancy and cohesion. That thing is sports.