by Jeff Laughlin
Some drunk guy at the bar yelled at me about how sports were an opiate and I was an idiot for watching. I nodded in fake agreement, and then I remembered something important.
Inevitability guides most of our lives, despite what we may think. Humans amble with keen eyes towards possibility, but we witness more of what we know will happen than what we hope will happen.
We calculate everything to the point of survival and our survival instincts take little to no thought. When’s the last time you thought about walking? Or digestion?
The only time it is tough to breathe is when you have to think about it.
People watch sports to escape the inevitability of life. We hope that something unexpected will happen. While most people’s lives are governed from day to day, we have hope when athletes play. If players do certain things well, if teams operate at a certain level and coaches call everything correctly, every team has a chance.
Problematically, we’re still dealing with a small probability. Talent usually wins. Smarter coaches usually win. And the underdogs hardly ever make a dent in the dominance.
Fans really know no more than what experts tell them.
Since the NFL and NCAA playoffs began, I’ve heard more recycled ideas about teams than I’ve heard cheers. In an era where every voice can be heard, we’ve run out of ideas about sports. This past weekend, the Seattle Seahawks had every advantage possible over the Carolina Panthers. Not one human I know would, without a healthy suspension of doubt, “believed” in the Panthers. Nor would they believe in Southern Guilford against Northern Guilford. Or UNCG to beat UNC.
But that suspension of disbelief — that hope that everything will go right — dominates the sports landscape.
“That’s why they play the games.”
“Anything can happen in a rivalry game.”
“Throw out the record books.”
In most cases, those phrases veil reality. If an expert has to tell us that anything can happen, inevitability has a hold on the outcome. We’re being sold our own hope rather than talent, illusion rather than truth.
The contention that anything can happen exists only if viewers want to believe that. We want to believe that at least some part of our life bears unpredictability and that chaos can benefit and enrich us.
Unfortunately, chaos is best left to weather and war.
The search in sports should be focused on watching excellence — the very best of athletic achievement excites and wows audiences with or without expectation. Dunks are cool. Touchdowns are cool. Running, especially when you can’t do it all that well, looks cool.
That unexpected payoff does feel good. Sometimes NC State beats Duke. Sometimes a third-string QB from your high school alma mater beats Alabama in the first ever college football playoff. Sometimes the Cowboys lose on a bum call and everything makes sense in the world.
Most of the time, though, you watch the inevitable. We can think our way into relevancy but for so long, but the averages come back to haunt us. We know what will happen, but we keep watching anyway.
It’s survival instinct. Most days move in boring patterns, but that one time — when you see something so grand, so outstanding that you feel vindicated in the slog — it’s all worth it.
That rush of crude, pure energy propels us through the game, through the drudgery, through the unbearably cold world that surrounds us.
I watch sports because they look cool. Sometimes I care. Sometimes I don’t. Either way, I’m pretty happy doing it.
So, shut up drunky. I may be an idiot, but I’m pretty happy. Witnessing the incredible yet inevitable on a daily basis may bore you, but I’m still all in.
Survival never goes out of style.