Marx may have stated that religion is the opiate of the people but in Australia that position is taken by sport. Just as Marx thought, with some justification, that religion kept people in their place, sport has the same narcotic influence on populations. It promotes a shallow tribalism and distracts us from the real concerns of life.
Having said this I feel the need to make some disclaimers. I like sport. I have never been very good at it but I fenced, surfed, sailed and I play a round of golf a week. But, it is obvious to me that the obsession with sport in Australia displaces serious thought. Talking about sport is social oil for us. I meet strangers on the golf course who immediately inquire about my allegiances and interests. We are both disappointed when we find that I do not speak the language. I belong to a different tribe.
I know this sounds Puritan, but hear me out.
We feel we are doing our duty to our children if they are engaged at an early age in cricket or football. We dress them in the colours of our favourite team at an early age. Young people delight in the body and in play and are susceptible to our urgings. Boys especially adopt sporting role models. They see that manliness is about using the body. Playing sport at a high level is the aspiration of parents and children that displaces other options.
While there are many beneficial aspects to playing sport there are also many downsides.
For example, children are immediately placed in competition. It is interesting that in the early football teams that my grandchildren play nobody is expected to keep score, as though competition is recognised as a bad thing. Of course, no one is fooled; the game is always about winning. Men are set against it each other at an early age. Perhaps this is why Helen Garner notes: "Oh, how bleak and windswept it seems to women, the landscape of what some men call friendship."
Is this why men feel uncomfortable talking about their emotional life, their marriages, and their disappointments even their joys? Is this why they have to drink so much in order to reach a state of honesty and intimacy?
Playing sport teaches teamwork, discipline and the importance of strategy but it is intellectually bankrupt. It makes us lazy because it is so easy to talk about. And when it is all over, when the knees have given out and the shoulders have been reconstructed, what do we have to show for it? I know people who have shelves stacked with trophies that are too precious to throw out.
I find myself envying the exhilaration on the faces of winning teams. This must be the best feeling of all! And the fans share in that feeling, for the tribe has won and we are members of it. God has touched us. It is the closest that many of us come to of religious experience.
But then the hangover; sporting heroes find that all that training, all that dedication has not equipped them for a life away from the roaring crowds. They have been seduced by fame and are famous no longer. Some meet tragic ends in drugs and booze, a moments silence is observed, black armbands are worn but the game goes on. The game is haunted by the prospect of the end, of emptiness and despair. What now?
The figure of Rabbit Angstrom from Updike's novels looms before us. The once successful high school basketball player whose life is lived in the shadow of early glory finds life difficult because the magic is gone. Life seems dull and pointless after the adulation and fame disappears. It is no wonder that too many of our sport stars find themselves in difficulty upon retirement. It was not so bad when playing sport at a high level could be fitted into normal working life. But now the temperature has been turned up and commitment is total and the pay extravagant so that a normal working life for many has not been developed.
Devotion to the sporting life can be intellectually and emotionally crippling. All your need to do is to listen to the speech of sports men and women who are at the elite level to see that they have mortgaged their lives over to being the best, often, as in athletics, in a very narrow expertise. It may be possible to want and work for only one thing. How have they been persuaded to do this? The "game" has ceased to be a game, it is serious, often ultimately serious. Such is the social construction of elite sports in our time. It is the ego that is constantly threatened and many fall by the wayside.
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