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Covid-19: How sport makes us more human

The covid-19 pandemic may have changed the rules of playing sport but it hasn’t dented the enthusiasm of fans

Marshalls can be seen in the stands with cardboard cutouts of fans prior to the F1 Grand Prix on 6 September in Monza, Italy. Getty Images
Marshalls can be seen in the stands with cardboard cutouts of fans prior to the F1 Grand Prix on 6 September in Monza, Italy. Getty Images

With the football and Formula One (F1) seasons winding up, and the Indian Premier League, India’s largest sports tournament, scheduled to begin its 2020 season later this month, sport is limping back to action after the hiatus due to the covid-19 pandemic. Fans are excited—but what is it that makes us long to see fellow humans play in the first place? This is a question worth pondering, for we truly understand desire when we are separated from the very object of it.

Imagine you are the Elon Musk of Jupiter and have just discovered life on Earth. Amongst all the absurd sights you would witness would be one of 22 men chasing a spherical rubber object to hit it into a net, with thousands watching them. Sport is a part of human existence that seems almost embarrassingly banal when we look at it for what it really is (or how an alien would view it), yet we are obsessed with every aspect of it.

Our affinity for sport is often attributed to the idea that it is, as George Orwell said, “War minus the shooting." Sport allows people to display heroic qualities, such as discipline, camaraderie, skills, the importance of winning, honour and fair play in the modern world, without the devastation and destruction caused by war. But there are deeper reasons too.

Sport for community

There are very few phenomena in this world that bring people together as much as sport. We wear the same colours, yell together, experience tension, elation and grief, all at the same time.

Partisanship in sport is rewarded with unquestioned loyalty, as it is in politics and religion (not the only commonality between the three), irrespective of any objective assessment about which team is the best. This blind fealty gives a signal to your tribe of fans that despite the better statistics or superiority of the opposition team, you are siding with your own.

Imagine if the Croatian president had backed France in the 2018 Football World Cup final, citing the superior odds and expert predictions in favour of the eventual champions. Would you expect the president to ever win an election again at home?

So why do sports fans think in herds? Is their lack of objectivity a bug or a feature? It is a favourite pastime of management books to label “herd-mentality", a primal feature in human decision making, as irrational. Advertising guru Rory Sutherland contradicts this with an elegant example in his book, Alchemy: “We are a herd species in many ways: we feel comfortable in company and like to buy things in packs. This is not irrational—it is a useful heuristic that helps avoid catastrophe. Antelope might be able to find slightly better grass by escaping their herd and wandering off on their own, but a lone one would need to spend a large proportion of its time looking out for predators rather than grazing; even if the grass is slightly worse with the herd, they are able to safely spend most of their time grazing, because the burden of watching for threats is shared by many pairs of eyes rather than one."

The lack of objectivity even makes sense through an evolutionary lens. As I wrote in an essay (“Is Objective Consumption Of News Overrated?", 13 June) on the lack of objectivity in news, “We would like to hold the beliefs that bring us the maximum number of allies, protectors or disciples, rather than beliefs that are likely to be objectively true. For millions of centuries, our minds have been shaped to grow this way and that hasn’t changed in the last couple of hundred years."

Sport allows individuals to bond. While these bonds could have multiple foundations, the most common one we know is geography. We back people from our regions since they speak like us, look like us and have grown up in similar environments. But bonding over sport also transcends geographical similarities. Sports teams have an ecosystem of fans from all parts of the world. If an FC Barcelona fan from Delhi meets one from Dallas, both would have a common language of jokes, player quirks, rivalries and stories of glory to bond over. They can instantly start feeling a certain sense of sameness by discussing a stunning Lionel Messi lob or how Sergio Ramos of arch-rivals Real Madrid is always a pain in the backside of their team—regardless of the economic, social or geographical status of the two individuals.

What French sociologist Émile Durkheim once remarked about religious groups holds true for groups of sports fans too. “Members of each clan try to give themselves the external appearance of their totem." For religions, such a totem may be small figurines of gods, a book or a building. Sports fans wear the team colours, bear its flags, icons and mascots, whilst literally singing its praises. A devotion to these totems allows clan members to feel like they are part of something that’s greater than them.

Following a team, watching its games and talking about it with fellow fans from across the world on social media also gives fans a common identity. This is evident if you notice how fans identify with their teams. They can be heard saying “We won the match" or “We could have played better". How? By shouting louder at your television? By buying team merchandise? Sports fans don’t have much direct agency in the results of sporting events but it might not always feel like that’s the case.

Healthy escapism

Sport allows us to transcend the monotony and anxieties of everyday life. When your favourite team wins, you feel it is a proxy win for yourself. At a seminar at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, once, a sport marketing executive rather cynically remarked that Indians are obsessed with the game of cricket since a significant chunk of the population, which suffers every day financially, is unlikely to achieve something special in its lifetime. People fill this void by believing that their team’s win is their own. It’s almost a cliché to say that when India won the 2011 cricket World Cup, it wasn’t just a win for 11 players on the field, but for the billion-strong viewers glued to their televisions. Many of us, including my teenage self, couldn’t hold back a couple of tears trickling down our cheeks. It was the greatest moment of unexceptional lives.

With a slouched back on a couch and diabetes-inducing food in hand, we can witness a human being displaying the absolute zenith of coordination and control, whether it is “the runner at the starting blocks, the swimmer in mid-stroke or the golfer at the end of a swing", elegantly captured in an essay in The School Of Life, an encyclopaedia for practical philosophy. “It’s a strange and poignant moment to experience ourselves in this masterful way. In an act of scarcely believable precision, on a golf course, a tiny white ball that might have gone pretty much anywhere—into the pond, on to the trees, into the head of a salesman in the clubhouse—can be made to resist all temptations to focus on the task of flying four hundred yards through the air to come cleanly to rest inside a small, barely visible hole on a highly manicured lawn on the opposite side of a hill."

On the flip side, it also gives us an outlet to release our frustration: You might not be able to scream at your boss when you don’t get that salary raise but you can come back home and generously cuss at former Liverpool Football Club captain Steven Gerrard on social media after seeing him famously slip in a football match, an error that allegedly denied his team the English Premier League title in 2014.

The feeling of camaraderie and collective effervesce while watching a game with friends and family in the same room as well as virtually, through WhatsApp, can do wonders for your mental health. In fact, evolutionary psychologists have found that the effects of winning and losing have also been proven to positively impact the testosterone level of male sports fans, a hormone that is crucial to male mental health.

Life is messy, with a high degree of uncertainty and without exact rules—particularly so during this pandemic. Sport gives us a way to witness a contest that balances skill with some chaos, all within the guard rails of fixed rules. Breaking such rules leads to cries of unfairness by fans and experts, which ensures that the administration keeps miscreants in check by punishing them.

Barring a few exceptions, most outcomes in sport can be called fair. Real life often lacks these features, precipitating the need to find numerous ways to escape it.

Archit Puri is a consultant and behavioural sciences writer.

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