LONDON, ENGLAND – Why do we play sports? And why do we get so much out of watching sports being played? Because it’s fun – woo, go team! Etc etc? Because it’s inspiring? Sure. But WHY is it so much fun? Why is it so inspiring? Why has every human culture on the surface of the planet felt drawn towards sports of one kind of another? Why are we asking these questions? Is it important? Probably not. Is it interesting? Maybe, if you’re into anthropological psychology and that kind of thing. Can we make anthropological psychology interesting? Umm…well, in the best sporting spirit, we’re willing to give it our best shot! Here, very briefly, is our best guess as to why we get such a kick out of sports.
Sport Is Play (And Play Keeps You Sharp)
If you said to a wild snake (not Donald Trump) ‘Hey! Why not expend unnecessary energy doing something which could potentially damage you and isn’t going to bring short-term food-based rewards?’ they’d think you were mad. They actually would probably slither away before you got the sentence out and wouldn’t understand you if they did stick around, but bear with the theory! However, if you said the same thing to a domestic dog, they’d understand precisely what you were talking about. Despite the need to defend your health and replenish your energy, sport is really, really good for us. Dogs play with toys, chase sticks, and so forth because it fulfills certain instinctive criteria for them. Play, for all animals (humans included) is a way of honing skills and behaviors which can help us in the wild. When your dog chases after and shakes his fluffy toy, he doesn’t love it. He’s practising his killing skills. If it squeaks, all the better! The squeaks mimic the squeals of distressed prey, and your dog takes ghoulish delight in their imaginary death spasms.
Our sports may not be quite so consciously bloodthirsty (at least, not since we did away with the Colosseum), but they still keep the skills we’d need in the wild sharp. Quick reactions, toned muscles, goal-orientation, teamwork, stamina – these are the things which will keep a fairly basic human hunter-gatherer group alive, and these are the skills which sports keep sharp in a ‘domesticated’ environment. At most basic, this is probably why we enjoy sport so much. It pushes evolution’s buttons.
Did somebody say “Colosseum?”
Sport Is War
Ask a UK rugby fan what it’s all about, and they’ll tell you that it’s war in miniature. Well, if they don’t empty a pint over your head and try to engage you in a rousing chorus of We Like To Drink With Yankee, that is. It’s all about taking land from the opponent – all the ‘tries’ are are a way of marking how much ‘land’ you’ve taken through your brutish strategy and physical prowess. A way of keeping war score, if you will.
In the past, the British ball games which have become the staple of modern western sports used to be quite literal scrambles for land. Villages would erupt into whooping, hollering, and sometimes violent teams which would try to sweep a nominal MacGuffin (a pig’s bladder, or a turnip) from one end of the settlement to the other. The aim wasn’t to score ‘goals’ – it was to take possession of the majority of the village. Your line of conquest marked by the location of the MacGuffin. Games would continue until everyone was too drunk or too unconscious to care any more (British sports hooliganism is nothing new). Soccer, rugby, even American football (which someone from Britain will snort at as “padded rugby for pussies”), all had their origin in brawl-like territorial games. Which themselves had their origin in the actual fights for territory which have punctuated human history. Interestingly, sports tend to be most rigorously played in cultures which are facing resource-based pressures and so forth, for whom the prospect of war may be both imminent and frequent. It’s no coincidence that the majority of sports we play today had their origin in martial cultures. But war isn’t exactly what anyone would call a fun afternoon’s entertainment. A follow-up to Angry Ward’s piece yesterday, and his friend Mickey’s questioning, Why do we enjoy watching sports so much?
Sport Is Tribal
As social creatures, we humans put a lot of store by the people we keep company with. Our own little ‘tribes’ define us even more than we think. The weirdos we hang out with form a big part of our identity. Our ‘band’ and our social identity are pretty important in the wild – they’re the difference between life and death (take a look at your friends. Think of them as all that stands between you and starvation/death by sabre-toothed tiger. Try not to cry). We use methods of creating tribal ‘identity’, therefore, to strengthen our all-important group bonds. Anyone who follows a sports team knows that there’s a whole lot of identity-based schtick that goes along with it. Team colors, team chants, and – most importantly – team rivalries. It’s all a way of saying ‘This is who we our, this is what we have in common, let’s protect each other from the big, scary world’. As often as not, we define ourselves not just by the things we have in common, but through opposition to others.
This is where sport comes into its own.
Whether it’s a safe way of defusing tribal tensions or (in the modern world) another way of creating divisive differences is a bit of a moot point. Tribal feeling is very, very important to humans, and it ain’t going anywhere!
Sport is one of the arenas in which we can get a payload of tribal identity, and our little caveman brains just LOVE it!
Come back tomorrow for “From The Vault Friday” and a little more tribal tension!