Why do we still watch sports?
When my ten-year-old daughter overheard me telling a friend that The Throwback Special is about a group of men that convenes each November to reenact the play in which Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann suffered his gruesome leg injury, she had a question.
“Dad,” she said, looking serious and perplexed. “I have a question.”
“What is it?” I said.
“Isn’t that mean?”
“Isn’t what mean?” I said. I confess that I didn’t understand what she meant. I had confused her, and now she had confused me.
“Isn’t it mean of those men to do that?” she asked. “To celebrate how he got hurt?”
Well, it does seem mean, I could suddenly see that. That is, I could see how she could see it that way. It seems, in fact, like a kind of doubling down on football’s essential meanness. It seems not just mean but cruel, sadistic. It seems derisive, callously complacent about genuine suffering. What kind of men would hold this contemptuous ritual? What kind of dad would invent men who would hold this contemptuous ritual?
My daughter doesn’t think I’m mean, at least not yet. I could see she was struggling with this dissonance. She wanted to understand.
I laughed, and I suppose the laughter might have seemed mean, as well. I laughed, I think, because I had recognized the incongruity, the incommensurability. There’s a relief in that, as in the resolution of a joke. I could see our two vantages, as well as the considerable gulf between them. It was clear that her question made perfect sense, and that even though she was not correct, the way in which she was incorrect was complicated and interesting.
“It’s not mean, honey,” I said. “It’s hard to explain, but trust me that what these men do is not mean. It’s sort of the opposite.”
It was over thirty years ago when Theismann suffered the gruesome compound fracture of the leg during a sack by Lawrence Taylor in the second quarter of a game televised on Monday Night Football. I was fourteen, and I was permitted to watch the first half of Monday night games. That night I was watching alone, and with millions of others.
Here’s a strange phenomenon: I’ve noticed that when I talk to others about the play—particularly to men roughly my age—we may groan and grimace and wince, and we may involuntarily clutch our legs, but we’re also likely to smile and nod, even laugh. What is wrong with us? A fellow human’s bone came through his skin on national television—the memory of this event should not elicit levity or fond thought. Are we, after all, just mean? Is this just the death of empathy, the casual cruelty of Internet commenters?
Or maybe there’s some truth in the body. The physiological response might perform or reveal something unarticulated. That grimacing smile, the playful clutching of the leg—perhaps this is a kind of palimpsest, a record of emotional and temporal layers. In this reaction we see two times existing together. We observe not only the cold brutality of the original play—the slow-motion nightmare of the reverse angle replay, the shock of Taylor, hands on his helmet—but also the warming influence of the intervening years. We see the recognition and consolation of group membership, the wistful twinge of nostalgia. A not unpleasant ache covers, but does not erase, the distant revulsion.
I’ve spent some time wondering why I still watch and care about sports, particularly football, and I grasp at the idea that an avid interest in sports might be connected to a desire to belong. We could debate whether this is a justifiable and edifying expression of this desire, but the desire itself seems vital and real. In caring about sports, we join others in caring deeply about something over which we have essentially no control, our lucky socks notwithstanding. The stakes are not genuinely high, but they feel high, and worthy of our passions. Our powerlessness as passive viewers is mitigated by our sense of belonging, as it is by the comfortingly orderly rites and rituals of seasons and spectatorship. We experience occasional joy and wonder, frequent disappointment, and, in some cases, anguish and horror. All of this we experience communally, even when we watch alone.
I am loath to attribute grand impulses to the watching of sports, which after all is characterized most frequently by sloth, inebriation, nacho crumbs, and a profound miscalculation of priorities. I will, however, do it anyway: If caring for sports is about belonging—and if group membership assuages our powerlessness and inevitable disappointment—then perhaps it is in some sense an expression, however wayward, of spiritual longing.
Those of us who saw the horrific Theismann injury, saw it together. We belong to the group of people who saw it, and the play belongs to us. Nauseating, astonishingly violent, and ours. Membership countervails brutality, converts it to paradox and ambivalence, where so many things drift in middle age. And in 1985, watching Monday Night Football on our remote-less, low-def televisions without competing screens, we more fully belonged, for better and undoubtedly for worse, to a relatively monolithic popular culture. It was hardly a golden age, but it was coherent and shared, unfractured, which may account in part for the lingering power of the Theismann injury.
What might be said about a group of men that gathers annually to reenact this memorable play? They’ve reached a certain age, and their deep nostalgia represents a doubling of their poorly comprehended desires—they yearn to belong again to a time when they most fervently belonged, and when the teams and players most meaningfully belonged to them. They’re not mean. They’re just religious.
— The Paris Review (@parisreview) March 15, 2016
Chris Bachelder, the winner of The Paris Review’s Terry Southern Prize for Humor, is the author of the novels Abbott Awaits, U.S.!, Bear v. Shark, and most recently The Throwback Special. His short fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Believer, Harper’s, and The Paris Review. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati.