Our Town: The reasons we need sport

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Photo by Tom Ferraro

There is great fear by some of my younger athlete patients that organized sport will not return after this COVID-enforced layoff. These are serious worries for a scholarship student since a full ride to college means at least $60,000 per year of free education.

One can understand their anxiety but this is my response.
The existence of what we humans call sport or recreation or play is not a random occurrence that a pandemic can snuff out of reality. Sport is as crucial a part of human life as work and family and has been here just as long.
The first great text on the importance of sport was written in 1938 by Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian. He traced the origins of human play back to the origins a man and suggested that play and sport are far from superfluous.

Sports allows us to step out of real life and enter a special reality with separate unique rules. It engenders a sense of freedom and an approximation of perfection.

The aesthetics of the playing field is balanced, often beautiful and captivating. The look of a baseball diamond is a good example of this aesthetic.

Playing a sport often creates a permanent community and sense of belonging. There is a secret quality to each sport with its own special and odd language. Only golfers know what greenie, bogey, premium, double-double and chippie mean.
Each sport requires a special form of dress. Golfers were outlandish colors and tennis players like all white. These ‘uniforms’ set the sport apart from reality.

Who doesn’t like the look of a rider with their uber-cool looking jodhpurs and riding boots? Sport is separated from reality but in fact transcends it in every way.

The sporting arena requires a display of finesse, training, courage, poise, bravery, perseverance, strength, preparation, focus and more. It expresses the most valued of human traits and why professional athletes are paid so well.

They are the cultures role models despite Charles Barkley’s’ insistence that they are not.
But Huizinga was not the only great thinker to describe the value of sports. Freud, who many consider the greatest thinker of the 20th century, described humans as being driven by two great animal urges, sex and aggression and the only way a culture is established and maintained is if it provides humans with ways to sublimate or displace our animals drives in safe and acceptable ways.

And sport is one of the best ways to sublimate both these drives. The physical act of any athlete is both a thing of beauty and a controlled way to kill.

Michael Jordan dunking a basketball is a thing of beauty and of violence as well.

I once asked the basketball great, Dave DeBusschere, if he thought basketball was a violent game and he answered “I’ve had my nose broken seven times. Does that answer your question?”
There are other great thinkers who have remarked on the value of sports. Alfred Adler was the creator of the theory of the inferiority complex and suggested that the way to overcome one’s sense of inferiority was to compensate by overachieving in sports or in other ways.
And there are many others like Heinz Kohut, Christopher Lasch and John
Berger all of who described the emergence of the culture of narcissism which forced us all to show off our stuff in order to gain recognition and not become invisible.

So these are just are some of the unconscious reasons that sport is a part of our life that will never leave us. In fact, it is more important than ever as the electronic age of information forces us into our heads more and more sport is a primary way of escaping from this information madness in our heads and finding a way back to our body and to the world.
And that is what I say to any of my professional or student-athletes that speak to me in my office. COVID is a temporary pause in the action. And soon enough we will be hearing blessed words like “play ball,” and “on the tee next is… Tiger Woods.”
Or better yet we may catch a glimpse of the song of summer:

“Take me out to the ballgame,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win it’s a shame.
For its one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game.”

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