Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Putting Sunday Into Perspective

As it exists in today's society, competition has both its good and its bad qualities. On the positive side, competition motivates us. It makes us want to be better than someone or something else, and therefore better than we currently are. It produces innovation and encourages ingenuity, inspiring people to create new things and making the evolution of strategy and planning essential to relevancy. It demands perfection because if something is not perfect, it can improved upon and beaten. In all of these ways, competition elevates the human condition because it demands that we become something more. However, competition has its dark side as well. When everything is results based and everyone is striving to win a zero-sum game, the darker side of humankind emerges. People take short cuts, either to make themselves better or to damage their competitors. Those that fall behind are often left there, because they no longer matter. And that darkest of emotions shows its face as well: hate.

Sports are essentially competition concentrated into an arena which has (comparatively) low stakes, but also clear winners and losers. In baseball, teams aren't competing for social status, control of power, economic supremacy, or the right to stay alive. Nor are the players judged by arbitrary sets of rules of who did the best, how, and for what reason. In sports, everyone is competing to be the best as is defined by the rules of the game. The champion is a clear winner when all is said and done. We may argue about whether this year's winner is better than that year's winner, but such arguments, however drunken and belligerent as they can get, are "safe" arguments. Two people argue about the competency of Joba Chamberlain rather than the place of religion in government. A bar chants about how another team sucks rather than speaking to a crowd and warning them about the growing negative influence of Jews in society. Two opposing groups of fans jeer and mock each other rather than ethnic groups murdering each other in the streets in armed conflict. In this way, sports elevates competition by giving it a safe place to play out.

Of course, there is overlap between the "real" world and sporting world. While sports subjugates our differences to the rules of the game, we cannot act as if these two realities are completely unaware of each other. I'm not only referring to those "dark" times way back when, as if since Jackie Robinson's introduction to the major leagues we've made sports the meritocracy and emotionally removed exercise that it is in its purest form. Two weeks ago, Wayne Simmonds, a black hockey player, had a banana thrown at him by a fan as a form of taunting. The next week, Simmonds himself was caught calling his opponent Sean Avery an anti-homosexual slur. Fights break out in bars and on the streets over the results of matches. People in Vancouver rioted after their loss to the Boston Bruins in last season's Stanley Cup (though the true players in the riot and their motivations are difficult to discern). Less than twenty years ago, Andres Escobar, a Columbian soccer player, was shot to death for an own goal he scored during a World Cup match. We cannot remove sports completely from the world we live in.

Even though the fourth wall of sports, the one that causes everyone to this that "this is just a game," is shattered at times, its affect on society is still dramatic. Just as democracy (supposedly) removes violence from the process of governance, sports helps to create the type of society in which violence still surely exists, but is drastically reduced from its historical levels. In ancient Rome, the sport was death itself, as gladiators died for the passion and amusement of the fans. In colonial times, matters of honor could be settled by duels to the death. Within the last two hundred years, black people were bought and sold as property rather than human beings. Of course it is not thanks to sports that all of these ills were fixed. However, the society that we currently live in uses sports as a way to shape and mold the passions of people, allowing for competition and the outlet of emotions in a way that is much less martial and mortal than in past times. This is why for some people, the issue of head injuries in sports, especially football, is so important. If we do not protect the people who provide this entertainment, this release, this absorption, we move back down the path we've traveled, where players are simply tools for our amusement rather than highly skilled practitioners of games that not only bring joy to millions of people, but helps them in ways they don't know it.

Last Sunday, Arsenal and Tottenham met in the London derby, one of the most highly contentious rivalries in all of soccer, perhaps in all of sports. Commentators talked endlessly about the bad blood, about the way each team uses the other as a measuring stick, about how the players and fans of each side truly hated the other. But when all was said and done, after Tottenham defeated Arsenal at White Heart Lane to the joyous cheers of Spurs supporters, in a city where mere months ago, violent riots and the governmental response had taken lives and caused untold millions of dollars in property damage, violence was the furthest thing from most people's minds. Despite the rivalry and despite the competition and despite "importance" of everything that had happened, at the end of the day, the normal state of affairs is that this was just a game. This is what sports does. This is why we watch, whether we realize it or not.

Game Notes:

-Alex Song had a bad opening ten minutes in the match with some foolish passes and poor marking, but he settled down and played one of the best matches he's had this season. He effectively shut down Emmanuel Adebayor and defended well on set pieces throughout. Though I have no desire to make Song Arsenal's permanent second option central defender, it is nice to know that he can play the role if he absolutely has to. And with Emmanuel Frimpong coming along well as the holding midfielder, that may be an option that is looked into more often than we would have thought coming into this season.

-The loss of Bacary Sagna is a major problem for Arsenal going forward. The offensive-minded right back will be out three months with a broken leg and if Carl Jenkinson's play on Sunday is any indication, this will be yet another position for opposing teams to exploit. To be fair, Jenkinson isn't awful; he's simply young and inexperienced and potentially awful. After coming in against Spurs, Gareth Bale beat him up and down the flank with Jenkinson taking forever to learn the simple lesson "Gareth Bale is really fast." If this kind of slow learning curve is any indication, Jenkinson can consider himself targeted by every coach on the upcoming schedule. And I wouldn't blame them.

-I can't really say enough about how much this loss hurts. Not only does it leave Arsenal waaaaaay down in the table when they had a chance to really shock people and move back toward the top, not only was it another match in which they were arguably the better team where they didn't get a result... but it was to Spurs. Ugh. Now Spurs believes that they are the ascendant team in this rivalry and it's really hard to argue with them. Better recent record, better position on the table, better outlook for the future... Arsenal is going to have to face the fact that right now, everyone thinks they are not the London team to beat. The question is whether they let this judgment get them down, eat at their confidence, and make this a full-blown calamity, or whether they accept this as a challenge and begin to get better now.

There's a bit of a break as this weekend brings us no Premier League due to international play, but be sure to check back when the matches start again. As always, Go Gunners.

1 comment:

  1. I think one of the reason's people have such visceral reactions to bad calls in sports is it shatters the illusion that it is pure competition. People have bad calls made against them all the time in life, business, education, and even the legal world, but for some reason we expect referees of our sacred games to be inhuman in their perfect... mainly to preserve our own illusions.