Ian Harris: The futility of sport as entertainment
A Sports article in an Arts column. It feels perverse. Are there not enough articles written about sports already, both in this paper and in others around the world? Surely there are more important things to write about in the field of entertainment, the return of fall TV, the fall of a CBS mogul, the ways in which Netflix and Amazon are changing the way we view movies or some other such subject. But sports are what are currently on my mind. Or rather, if there is a futility in being a fan of certain sports. Michigan Football is a religion after all, and not one with much basis in reality. Most fans of sports are indoctrinated into the fandom in some way or another. Unlike other kinds of fandom, sports fans often don’t choose their teams, their teams choose them. That only makes it feel even more disheartening when you realize this form of entertainment you are so attached to is doomed to continually let you down.
I’ve been a Michigan Football fan for literally my entire life. I was in the womb during that fateful 1997 season and unknowingly attended many victories that would allow the Wolverines to go on and win the national championship. The overpriced hot dogs and stale popcorn of Michigan Stadium were in my bloodstream from the very beginning. The idea of rooting for a college team other than Michigan is anathema to me; it goes against the very fabric of who I believe I am. And yet after the Notre Dame game two weeks ago I felt something I’d never felt before as a Michigan Football fan: uninterest. As the game wound to a close and Michigan seemed to have some kind of miracle chance to come back and win the game I could not find it in myself to conjure up even the faintest of hopes like those around me. I’d seen this movie too many times before.
College sports, to the vast majority of people who watch them, are nothing more than entertainment. Win, lose, come back from behind, blow out a bad team — it’s an excuse to take a break from the real world for a few hours, eat junk food, hang out with your friends, drink and feel as though you are a part of something larger than yourself. At the end of the day it won’t truly impact your life in any way if Michigan wins or loses, and in 10, 20 or 30 years from now most people won’t even be able to remember the games that we won and the games that we lost. But year in and year out, 100,000 people in Ann Arbor continue to pay increasingly expensive fees to attend the games and by and large they are continually disappointed. Michigan has beaten Ohio State just once in my memory. We’ve beaten Michigan State a few times. I cannot recall Michigan winning a Big Ten championship. Some part of me realizes we must have when I was younger, but I have no memories of such an event, only vague recollections of getting blown out by a west coast team in the Rose Bowl. Such is the tragedy of being a lifelong Michigan fan.
So why do I keep watching? Why do we keep watching? Why do we keep spending money, time and energy on something that brings us pain? It’s a sad devotion to an ancient religion that has given us little reason to actually be loyal to it. If a television series I like starts to go down the toilet, I’ll stop watching. If a movie franchise I enjoy becomes complete garbage, I’ll stop going to see it. But with sports, people will continue to support even the most hopeless of teams for decades on end. Do the people who pay money to watch the Cleveland Browns get embarrassed year after year feel as though their money is being well spent? How about the people who went to see the Lions redefine the meaning of the word abysmal on Monday night? Is there not something else they would rather be doing? As Jerry Seinfeld once noted, it’s really the clothes that we are rooting for. Players will leave the team or go to a different team, coaches will come and go and only the colors and the clothes remain through it all. The Every Three Weekly recently published a piece lampooning the idea that students self worth was tied directly to the performance of the Michigan Football team in a way that can’t be explained by any rhyme or reason; for many on this campus, that is their reality. Being a Michigan Football fan is like returning to a partner who constantly plays with your emotions, who gives you nothing back, who is a constant drain on your wallet and your time and whom you only continue to run back to because you literally do not know what it would be like not to do so.
Being a sports fan means being a fan of something that does not care about you, that is designed to entertain you and nothing more. It distracts you from the more important and more worthy things in your life — a cold hearted business masquerading as school spirit. It’s entertainment with no end in sight, no world in which you’re ever satisfied and no way to ever fully escape from the horrible grip that it has on your soul. Colleges and the world would perhaps be a better place if people didn’t care nearly so much about it.
I’ll see you at the game on Saturday.