More than just a game
Why sports matter
Sports are just games. Nothing more, nothing less.
So what drives grown men to shed tears over a team they have literally nothing to do with? What causes 100,000 people to gather in a stadium on Sunday regardless of rain and snow? What causes the city of Super Bowl-winning teams to experience small booms in the local economy?
The answers are simple.
“Sports matter because they don’t matter at all,” my first sports journalism professor told me.
I couldn’t agree more. The fundamental power of sports is their very lack of importance. They are an escape from the truly important things. Winning a football game does nothing for the world, but it does exactly what it needs to for people.
Life is stressful, whether you’re a college student feeling the looming presence of finals creeping up, an adult with the pressure of work and bills or both. Sports are a way to forget those things, even just temporarily.
Sports represent something bigger than we are. We try to have some form of control of the things that stress us out. We give that control up when we watch sports. We’re not calling plays or making personal decisions and we certainly aren’t on the field playing. And unless you’re a Packers fan, you probably don’t have any form of ownership stake in the team.
What you do have is an emotional stake. When my team scores, I feel genuine joy come over me. People in the stands of a stadium feel this joy and they get hit with that dopamine rush together. We get the feeling of victory without having to work for it.
But we do work for it. The work a fan does is simple; it’s being loyal.
It’s picking a team when you’re five years old and sticking with them through thick or thin. It’s feeling a bond develop that makes you feel like a genuine part of it.
It’s sticking around through 2-14 seasons, but being optimistic the next year is “gonna be our year.” It’s what causes us to speak with inclusive pronouns like “our” when we refer to a team. It’s what causes a person who works hard all week to be willing to give up a chunk of his or her paycheck for game tickets or team merchandise.
It’s about all those feelings. Sports are filled with those dopamine-inducing emotions. People love stories of athletes who experience a traumatic injury and make a triumphant return or hearing about guys like Michael Oher from the Carolina Panthers who had a rough upbringing but managed to make it all the way to the NFL.
If you didn’t shed a tear hearing about Isaiah Thomas’ decisions to play the night after losing his sister, then I don’t know what could possibly make you cry. Boston Celtics and NBA fans came together to rally behind him.
Just think about some of the most powerful moments that bring society together: it all comes back to sports. Images of the first Yankees and Mets game after September 11 will live forever.
When the Saints brought a Lombardi Trophy back home to New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina, I’ll never forget. It didn’t fix any homes, it didn’t provide anyone with food or shelter. But for a brief moment, people whose lives were at the lowest point got to experience some level of joy.
Sports will never end world hunger, create world peace or cure cancer, but they don’t claim to and they don’t need to. Sports are an escape, not a solution.
Daniel Petruccelli is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.