(or, yes, I’m on the Internet and I genuinely like sports – kill me)
Sports are a thing of idiotic beauty; objectively, there’s no reason for twenty-two grown men to roll a sphere around a lawn, and get paid more money than they can actually count, but there’s something awesome about it – The Economist says that the 2012 Premier League season was shown in 800 million homes throughout the World, an amazing feat considering there are around 1.4 billion households on the planet. Now, I’ll try to show you why they’re so cool.
Firstly, they offer a sense of community – not in the crappy way that GCSE RE lessons offer it, but sports can create genuinely close groups of people; take the recent controversy of Spurs fans chanting ‘Yids!’, a racial slur directed at Jews that Tottenham’s Jewish population coined as a means of mocking those who use it seriously. The debate as to whether the fans are right to do this is irrelevant here, because there are around thirty thousand people who show up at football matches every week, and proudly chant this with strangers. The UN’s Right To Play campaign, which ensures that children around the World have the opportunity to engage in regular physical activity, has reported that in 2003, whole communities of people in Zambia, including national football star Kalusha Bwalya, came together to promote anti-measles vaccinations; children would rotate through a series of sport-themed activities, and receive their vaccination at the end. A reported 18,000 children were vaccinated in one week alone as a result of the scheme, providing clear evidence for the power of sport to draw people together for a legitimately awesome goal. Furthermore, it’s a great ice-breaker with people. The world-dominating popularity of sports like football means that any conversation can be started with a simple “Who do you support?”, which can lead to a debate over who is a better Regista, Xabi Alonso or Modric (the latter), or any number of things. To be honest, a lot of people on the planet are shy, nervous or unconfident; the ability to be able to strike a conversation with someone is a great relief to a lot of people (eleven-year-old me included). Furthermore, the inherent stupidity of sports, in that they have absolutely no impact on the ‘serious’ issues of World politics, religion or economics, means anyone can discuss them freely; you can either start debating the existence of someone’s God, or the existence of hope for the England national football team, and from experience, I can tell you that the latter will give people much better first impressions of you.
Another great thing about sports is their simultaneous distance and closeness to us plebs; on one hand, anyone with feet (and even those without due to the recent boom in disabled sports) can join a Sunday League team, giving us all the feeling of being a part of a sports team. This feeling is also great, considering that so many young kids have dreams of playing sports – the endless and mindless energetic running about appeals to children (and myself), and so setting up an amateur team with your mates gives you a taste of ‘living out your dreams’ (which, by the way, is an awfully cheery phrase to use in any context other than childhood memories). Conversely, the world of professional sports can be unbelievably far off: watching an NFL game is more like watching a futuristic sports simulation from 1982, complete with unnecessarily detailed statistics and rules no-one understands, and aren’t explained until someone breaks them. This creates a sense of wonder around professional athletes; to the extent that watching them becomes more like following the narrative of a long-running drama, and rooting for your favourite characters in the-end-of-season finale (or end-of-the-week game, but hopefully with less tasteless death that most shows chuck at episodes to make them ‘dramatic’). Some people might dislike this almost Stalin-esqu cult of personality that develops around some athletes, but again, the broader pointlessness of sports means that no real harm can come of idolising these guys – the worst conceivable outcome of collecting all the Gareth Bale stickers to fill your album is that you’ll think that you were a loser when you later go looking through your old stuff when you move out to go to University. Sport is perhaps the one thing in our society that simultaneously allows us to be a part of it, and idolise those better than us; and let’s be honest, we’ve all got to have a hero somewhere.
Sports also offers genuine health benefits for those who participate in them; obviously devoting hours of your life to stuff like darts is unlikely to help you run a mile, but the majority of sports involve some form of physical activity that will improve your cardiovascular fitness. It will also make you thinner. This can be very beneficial (because society hates people that are large of body, but loves people that are small of mind). Regarding mental health, The UN’s Right To Play scheme also conducted research into the impacts on anxiety issues of regular exercise, concluding that ‘Engaging in aerobic sessions lasting 20–40 minutes can result in reduced anxiety lasting 2–4 hours’. Now, I’ll admit that stressing over shaving seconds off your 100m time will not help you calm down, but exercising in a more relaxed atmosphere can really help; for instance, I break up my schoolwork and the excessive amounts of further reading I’m doing in preparation for my English Degree with two-mile runs; these leave me tired, yes, but I can rest my mind for a bit, while doing something that’s actually beneficial for my health. Think about it: you could either take breaks from work by watching Minecraft videos on YouTube (which will probably harm your ability to construct a mine in real life more than anything), or you can give your mind a break, and choose to work your body instead.
However, sports are not perfect: the entire sporting industry seems to have gone Capitalist mad in recent years, with the average Premier League Season Ticket (a single ticket that reserves you a seat at all of a club’s games that season) rising in price by 4% on last year, with Arsenal charging £985 for one such ticket. Say you’re a father who wants to take your young, particularly football-mad, son to see the Gunners play at the Emirates this year; you’d be shelling out almost two grand. Most clubs aren’t much better – Spurs charge over £700 and the Premier League’s cheapest ticket is still £299; Manchester City’s price is the top flight’s only ticket under 300 quid. More broadly, there’s stupid money in sports these days, especially in football; I’m gonna have over £30,000’s worth of debt by the time I leave Uni (probably closer to 40,000 due to the tragedy that is the rising price of tins of Morrison’s baked beans), which is just under one day’s wage for Gareth Bale (a very good player, mind). This division seems to further the rift between the fans, and their idols, creating an almost them-and-us culture; I said that having an idol is not a bad thing, but when that idol makes more in a week than you will in a year, it makes the dream of reaching the heights of said idol impossibly unreal.
But, this is capitalism; I reckon I’d rather live in a world where I can buy TVs and PS4s if I want and be rewarded for my professional efforts with a form of universally-accepted currency, and suck up the fact that football players are overpaid, than live in a hovel in a ditch working for the glory of some ‘Great Leader’, who kills more of their people than they protect. Yes sports are largely dumb, often violent, always temporary and stupidly unrealistic, but they can be great fun too, in that they appeal to the childish bit of our brains that gets insanely excited when England scores a goal. Sports aren’t for idiots that don’t care about the bigger problems of out world, they’re a form of entertainment, designed to distract us from the total crappiness of our society, which is by no means a bad thing.
– The Economist (for most of the financial stuff)
– BBC Sport (for the rest of the financial stuff)
– UN Report on the Right To Play campaign (okay, what the hell do you think I used this information for?)