Sports is Art: Examining the Fundamentals of Spectatorship

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Illustration by Khanh San Pham

 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 7:57pm

It took me four seconds to spot Teddy in a line of 50 students outside Crisler Center. He stood tall in a bright-yellow Pikachu costume holding a small Tim Horton’s hot chocolate in his right hand.

As I approached him, he seemed to be talking a little bit to a lot of people. He told me we would be let inside the Crisler Center — home of the University of Michigan’s men’s and women’s basketball teams — in about 15 minutes. I settled into the back of the line, gearing up for the wait to be longer than what Teddy predicted. Looking around, I noticed how quiet this line of Michigan sports fans was.

Football Saturdays at the University are equated with Christmas morning by many of my friends — though, of course, instead of candy before breakfast, it’s shots. There really isn’t a time on this campus when you can’t find students in jerseys on front porches, celebrating their team.

Needless to say, at 5 p.m. on a Thursday at Crisler Center, I was expecting a line full of rowdy kids. But instead, I was surrounded by peaceful, dedicated students waiting in not so visible anticipation for the basketball game. They stood as if it were their job, not their pleasure. Which, in a way, it was.

I was standing in line with Maize Rage, thei golden T-shirt-wearing student section, for the Michigan vs. Wisconsin basketball game. Many students in line two hours early are a part of the Maize Rage Core — the smaller group of more dedicated students who have weekly meetings to plan cheers and sit at the front of the student section for every game.

LSA Engineering senior Teddy Tran is an icon of the group. He’s dedicated countless hours to the Maize Rage and many more to talking about basketball with his family and friends. He’s been following the Michigan basketball team since his senior year of high school. He’s been to 31 football games and almost 70 basketball games.

“I found a passion for the sport and I got invested,” Teddy said to me as we sit down in the first row of the bleachers.

***

As a student at the University, I feel isolated from the exhilarating force of sports culture that reverberates between students. Students like Teddy,  who make this mental, emotional and monetary investment in sports.

Walking down East Hoover Avenue and then South Main Street for the first time my freshman year, it was as if I could taste the community. Shouting “Go Blue” can stand for the entire Michigan community anywhere else. But here, on this street, the phrase meant I supported a group of people playing a sport I do not care about.

My lack of interest in sports doesn’t stem from a lack of understanding: I was a cheerleader in high school — I had to learn the rules and watch football games closely to know when and what cheers to do.

Sitting in the Big House for the first time, I remember tasting it. I can still taste it. I understand there’s a powerful community at work on campus, but what I don’t understand is the foundation that brings this community together. Extract the crowds, the multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry, and even the comradery. What I’m asking is: What is it that draws humans to sports?

***

Over thanksgiving break, I sat down next to my dad to watch the Chargers play the Kansas City Chiefs — something I never do. “The Chargers” is a term I heard growing up so often that I never actually thought about its meaning. I understood the word “Charger” as a sports team before I ever thought about the verb it was connected to, or the gold-rimmed platter that sits under china dinner plates, or the type of horse or even the phone-charging device. To my family, “The Chargers” was a team, a dinner table conversation go-to and a reason for my sister and I to get out of the house on Sunday afternoons.

I try to look for the box with the score and the elusive timestamp on it (a time that was incredibly deceiving to me as a child: Four minutes and three seconds never actually meant four minutes and three seconds). I feel a familiar ache in my stomach as I realize the game won’t be over soon and an even larger ache for how incapable I feel when I try to connect with people who love sports. No matter how attentive I try to be, how much I listen and learn, how large of a Big-Ten-sports-playing university I attend, I could never become a sports fan.

My dad hears me sigh. I turn my head toward him and smile skeptically. He reaches his arm towards me and pulls me next to him.

“I wish I could explain better to you what sports mean to me …” he trailed off. “Why I care about it just so much.”

I laugh softly and mostly to myself. It is the type of laugh that masks the irreproachable dearth of understanding between the two of us. He wishes he could explain, but could he? Could I? Could I find concrete answers to why he, and so many, love sports in a way I never could? Why I can list out my friends who are sports fans vs. non-sports fans? And why, to non-sports fans, caring about sports feels so irrational?

***

My father grew up playing sports: Football, basketball and baseball for the small city on the even smaller island of Coronado, Calif., with a large sports community. I reason to myself that watching the sports he once practiced and played is a form of studying for him — it is useful and interesting to watch experts play the form you once or still work hard to play.

“Having played sports as a child there was a sense of ease and harmony between different parts of myself: body and mind primarily,” said Santiago Colas, an associate professor of comparative literature and arts, ideas and the humanities. “With that, a kind of absorption and a lack of self-consciousness that felt like freedom. Freedom to exercise my capacities as a person, as a whole person.”

Teddy, who sits next to me at the basketball game, didn’t play sports growing up.

“To be honest, I think I’m an anomaly,” Teddy told me. “I did robotics in high school, but no tennis, no football, no basketball or stuff like that. But for some reason, here I am, dressed like a Pikachu and all.”

However, Teddy is not an anomaly.

Andrei Markovits, a professor of political science, Germanic studies and sociology, has been studying sports cultures since the 1980s. Markovits and David Smith, a doctoral student at the time in the Political Science Department, conducted a study about undergraduates at the University, reporting on how many students attend sporting events, how often they watch sports on TV, who their favorite teams and players are, and how they support teams in the state of Michigan.

“Crudely put, one need not have played one second of football in one’s life to have developed into a rabid and highly knowledgeable football fan,” Markovits wrote.

When I told Markovits about how I attended a Michigan men’s gymnastics meet to try to engage in a sport I once played, unlike football or basketball, he laughed at me.

For sports like gymnastics, the followers of the sport tend to also be doers of the sports. However, for sports such as basketball, football, baseball, hockey, soccer and cricket — sports Markovits defines as “hegemonic sports” — the followers outnumber the doers immensely.

“Football is the most post-modern sport, because virtually no American has ever played football like these guys play football," Markovits said. "Very few people understand. In fact, very few people have actually been to an NFL game, and yet if you look at the NFL, it is the most successful sport of all time.”

“There are a group of almost all men who we call the ‘sports omnivores,’ ” Markovitz says. “They basically are guys who were actually awful athletes but who are obsessed with sports. For them it really is an intellectual in devour. … What is going on in is a form of identity.”

***

I’m sitting in the basement of Ashley’s on State Street talking to LSA senior Matt Fisher. There is a basketball game playing on a screen behind me. I ask him the question I’ve been asking everyone I meet this semester: Why does you love sports so much?

“Sports were a big part of my childhood,” Fisher says. “I first really got into sports with the Cleveland Cavaliers when LeBron came to the team in 2003. I was 9 years old and as I progressed through elementary school, middle school and high school, that was the golden age of Cleveland sports and Cavs basketball.”

When I asked Business senior Rikki Miner the same question, she was eager to tell me the same thing.

“Being from Chicago, sports are everything,” Miner sIS. “We have a lot of storied history and teams in all Big Four sports leagues. My family is third-generation Bears season ticket holders, so I’ve been going to those games since I was an infant. My family is also a huge Michigan sports family, so every Saturday growing up I watched the Michigan football games on TV, and our weekends were planned around the time of the game.”

And yet again, when I asked LSA senior Joseph Evans.

“To me, Michigan football is the holiest of holy things,” Evans says. “I learned about Michigan football from my dad, he taught me about it — we would always be watching games together. Sports represent a generational bond. Because it is a strong part of my family, I can identify with it. It is a part of my identity even though I’ve never played for them, never made a contribution beyond being a fan. But this leaves me feeling a part of the team and that’s why I care about it.”

Even for students who claim they are “non-sports-watching fans,” family identity contributes to their watching habits.

I found Shirley Wang’s “Sports Complex: The Science Behind Fanatic Behavior” report observing how a fan’s identification with a sports team is similar to how someone identifies with their nationality, ethnicity or even gender. In it, Daniel Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State University, defines this team identification as “the extent to which a fan feels a psychological connection to a team and the team’s performances are viewed as self-relevant.”

This identity is a form of attachment for fans, and like multiple concepts within the study of sports psychology, it dates back to the ancient world of sports. David Potter, a professor of Greek and Roman History at the University, describes this idea of collective identity as one of the largest reasons for humans developing intense attachment to sports.

“As populations were brought away from rural roots, deracinated, put into cities and are taking up industrial jobs, there was an anxiety about them, people started to ask: ‘Who are you?’ ”

Potter told me that the University, and universities across the country, recognized this powerful sense of identity and tapped into it.

“In the late 19th century and early 20th century, universities began to support sports as a way of reaching out into communities and helping to build a connection between themselves and the community that just their academic mission often couldn’t do,” Potter said. “The stands for Michigan football very early on were intended to be larger than the city of Ann Arbor. Again, it proved that the University was stretching its image.”

***

An hour and a half before the game, the inside of Crisler Center feels a bit like a shinier Disneyland. It’s pristinely clean, and there’s an overpowering cinnamon sugar smell floating throughout. “Bad and Boujee” is pulsating over the speakers.

I can see the first six rows already filled in with matching T-shirt-wearing students. The students next to me have their backpacks in their laps and notebooks opened. Others fill out a quiz about basketball player fun facts. Despite their age difference and varying roles in the University community, everyone is united in this space.

This ecosystem works. Students come here to be entertained and support the team. The team thrives off the support the large fan base offers. The team does well and the fans are rewarded and the team is rewarded as well. It is a cyclical process.

For Teddy, it is this cyclical nature of sports — the scene I’m about to witness of fans and players collaborating together and feeding off one another — that brings him here each week.

“I love the passion, from both the athletes and the fans,” Teddy says. “Especially in basketball, the team plays off our energy and we play off their energy and what they do in the game. When it’s great, this place is rockin’ and it’s just really fun to be a part of all of that.”

Teddy believes that although sports events are more about what the team does, the way his club consistently shows up to games and contributes to the environment helps.

“I mean obviously the players are playing but if one thing goes right it can turn into two or three things all in succession, and before you know it this place is rockin’, everyone is screaming, everyone is yelling, and for the other team it becomes very difficult because it is very loud, very chaotic … that’s how the crowd and the team play off each other.”

Though I’m suspicious, I respect this participant role. After all, don’t I have to? I worked for years playing the ideal participant: leading a whole group of girls in this exact phenomenon as high school cheer captain. The difference between Teddy and me, though, and Fisher and all of these students I interviewed, is that I didn’t believe in it. I cheered for other reasons such as physical fitness and leadership, but I never truly cheered for the team. I never truly believed that what I was doing was changing their game.

***

I turn around to see a screen playing a basketball game positioned behind the bar. I turn around and see Fisher’s eyes fixated on the screen and I feel the familiar ache of disconnection. Fisher cares, his eyes are still glued, but I don’t.

“I have no idea what the end result is going to be,” Fisher says. “No one knows what’s going to happen in a sports game — you are watching it unfold right in front of your eyes. That unpredictability I think allows for such an emotional range, and such a powerful experience.”

Prof. Colas noted that Fisher is picking up on this unpredictability, along with the fact that in sports there is an end result that is entirely clear cut — you either win or you lose.

“For people who are interested in other arts, sports can seem sometimes childish, or infantile. A novel isn’t either great or shitty, it depends a lot on where the reader is coming from. But a team either won or lost. I don’t think that’s the best way to approach sports, with that narrow of an outlook, but (sports) are kind of built that way. They activate an appeal to people who are needing, for whatever reason, black and white, clear outcomes.”

And it’s exactly this tension that Colas presents that bothers me so much — I don’t want to find these sports games childish, I don’t want to roll my eyes and not understand the irrational fervor I see in my dad’s eyes.

***

Art — mostly writing, but also diagram drawing — means a lot to me. Art’s powerful psychological benefits and productive means of expressing a form of the self are why I find it not just entertaining but wholly important.

I hold sports to this same standard because of the urgent rate at which society consumes them. Even though society loves art, discusses politics and even screams at music festivals, sports have a specific kind of spectatorship that I find so strange and different — it is a blind belief in an event you have no control over, but have a large emotional investment in.

“The first thing I would think about every morning when I woke up for a week was the Michigan State game two years ago where they fumbled the punt,” Evans told me. “It’s 100 percent irrational.”

I say I don’t understand it, but I continue to ask Evans about his experience.

“I felt such disappointment because I watched every game this team has played since I was 9 years old. It was my childhood dream for Michigan to win a national title while I was a student here, so I could feel like all of that hard work I had done, at times watching Michigan lose, paid off, in a culminating moment of going to a really significant sports game. It doesn’t matter if I have control over it or not, it just represents so much throughout my whole life. And it almost felt deserved, that I had earned it.”

The art that I interact with is entertaining and impactful, but does not wake me up every morning feeling the weight of a bad concert or a win of a Grammy in the way that sports fans are emotionally affected by Michigan’s wins and losses.

“Winning or losing does not impact your object of life, and yet it matters so much,” Markovits says. “Look, I’ve studied it for 50 years. I don’t know if you can ever really get at this. … It’s about a lot of things. … It’s about a form of comfort, a form of community.” He pauses. “It’s an imagined community — that is power. But in some way, it is also a low-cost thing. Unlike in politics, if your party loses you will get bad policies, it has an effect on your life.”

***

As the basketball game begins, I force myself to pay close attention, follow the players with a new awareness that I haven’t previously. I try to better understand what Teddy has been telling me, what professors, students and my research have told me all semester, and what society has been telling me my whole life. And as I do it, it is hard not to be affected by the overpowering cheering crowd. I can barely hear my thoughts as cheers are flooding through my ears.

“For me there’s a more kind of micro-level that unfolds repeatedly throughout the course of the sporting event,” Colas says to me. “What is the next play going to be? What is the player going to do with their body right now in this next instance in this challenge given to them by the rules of the game, the ability of their opponents, etc., etc.?”

It is at this micro-level beauty that I try to watch as the game unfolds in front of me now — one player’s torso seems to disconnect from his hips as he pauses to fake a throw to his teammate, in blinks of eyelid time another player is already across the entire court swinging into the air to shoot, a pause, a dribble is so precise before a shot is made.

“I think that it's important to human beings to be able to witness that beauty, dramatic tension and this sort of exhibition of a human being doing things that human beings are uniquely suited to do, and often don’t get to do, because of the way our lives are organized,” Colas says.

But as I watch the game and search for this type of beauty, what I think about is not the basketball players, but the gymnastics meet I attended last week. I remember my stomach tightening as my eyes traced over the gymnasts’ hands gripping the bar. My head raced as I imagined what type of flip may be coming next. My mouth opened in awe of the strength, agility, athleticism of those I was observing. And when players prepared on the sideline, I genuinely cheered and cared about the result.

This is perhaps a result of a combination of the factors I have experienced — being a gymnast when I was young, watching the Olympic gymnasts with my sister for years, respecting the hours of training and personal dedication the athletes make. But who is to say why I find this beautiful and not basketball plays? Or why I find spoken word poetry beautiful and not Michigan’s final football game?

“It is a matter of taste, a matter of upbringing; clearly there are a matter of social categories that impact it — it’s not completely random — but ultimately, it can’t be explained,” Markovits told me. “Ultimately, you cannot translate this. You cannot translate what is beautiful. It just is.”

With Maize Rage students roaring behind me and the final seconds racing down on the scoreboard clock in front of me, I’m more content feeling isolated in this crowd than I ever imagined. For those around me, I understand there’s beauty here, even if not for me. Sports, just as art, cannot be translated. Sports, just as art, just is.

 

Claire Bryan is an LSA senior and former editorial page editor for The Michigan Daily.