Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sports and Catharsis

Is it possible to find catharsis through sport, as we do through art?

This question popped into my mind as I watched the Cubs-White Sox game on Saturday, and I felt compelled to consider some of the similarities between watching a sports game and going to the theater.

Both a good game and a good play (note even the similarity in language) draw the spectator into the action, making him forget about everything else around him. Both a game and a play are self-contained worlds, which allow us to reflect on our own lives. Interestingly enough, in ancient Greece both athletics and drama began as parts of religious festivals.

Moreover, as a life-long, long-suffering Cubs fan, I'm thoroughly convinced that baseball has taught me all I'll ever need to know about tragedy. What can you say about a team that has not won a championship in over 100 years, despite many excellent teams and many outstanding opportunities? The Cubs' woes easily compare with those of a Greek tragedy. Babe Ruth called his famous home run shot at Wrigley Field to defeat the Cubs in the 1932 World Series. Thebes suffered under the Sphinx, and Chicago has been cursed by the billy goat. (One important difference, though, is that while many Cubs fans unwind at the famous Billy Goat Tavern, Thebans probably didn't go out for drinks at the Taberna Sphinx.) Only just recently, it was revealed that the Cubs' most recent hero, Sammy Sosa, owed many of his home runs to performance-enhancing drugs. A great man's ambition becomes his tragic flaw. Clearly, the Cubs' history bears all the mark of a Greek tragedy.

If this all sounds a bit too fantastic, if you don't believe the Cubs deserve to be compared to Oedipus and Orestes, or Chicago to Thebes and Mycenae, you must still admit that the Cubs' misfortunes are at least worthy of an Old World folk tale. There's the black cat at Shea Stadium that caused the Cubs' promising 1969 season to fall apart in the last month. There's the story that it was Bill Buckner's old Cubs batting glove which caused him, even as a member of the Red Sox, to let a ground ball go through his legs in the World Series. There's no arguing--this is all empirically verifiable fact!

Well, to be a little more serious...My basic point is that I don't understand the snobbishness of people who look down on pro sports. After all, many of these self-appointed snobs, who think of theater, ballet, and classical music as the only serious arts, make the same objections to professional sports that many ancient philosophers (e.g., Plato in the Republic) made against theater-goers: rowdy, drunk, concerned only with images, etc. These accusations are not entirely unfounded, but they should not take away from the glory of sport.

Sport illuminates the experience of victory and defeat better than any play. The intense effort, the grand hopes, and the dejection of defeat--these are all things which we see most clearly in a closely-contested sporting match. That, I'm sure, is why St. Paul chose to compare life as a Christian to a race and a fight (2 Tim. 4:7).
Post a Comment