We expect Roger Federer, Virat Kohli, Lebron James, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo etc to play 10 months out of a year and entertain us at the height of their capabilities and if we are not satisfied then we ostracize them. If we demand that these athletes win every match while entertaining us, then we need to re-evaluate our own mental health.
Consider the playing schedule of a professional sports team. The Indian cricket team played five 5-day test matches in England this summer. Then the players of the team competed in the IPL (Indian Premier League) which had to be postponed and the venues for the tournament were shifted to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) because of the devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Immediately following the IPL, the Indian team is scheduled to participate in the men’s T-20 cricket world-cup tournament in the UAE. The Indian team has already played two warm up matches (against England and Australia) and won. Then in November, the team is scheduled to have a bilateral series with New Zealand at home followed by a tour of South Africa. To this mix, add media time, traveling, nagging injuries and now quarantine and bubble life. I think it is about time we as a society should ask if this is the kind of entertainment we want to consume.
Let me be clear that I have been a sports aficionado since the time I can remember. It is the only thing that gives me adrenaline and any form of masculinity in me by modern standards is expressed in my love for the competitiveness I yarn in the games. From soccer to tennis to cricket to football to basketball, sport is my refuge to artistic manliness compared to my overall mellow predisposition. In spite of this adulation, recently, I have come to doubt the virtue of competitive sports and its proper place in modern society.
Sports inherently is a voluntary endeavor where two people or teams compete with each other in order to test the “authenticity” of their skills. If the authenticity is validated, it feels great; if not, you go back to the drawing board to improve. In the process, the audience for a moment feels the joy of the winner(s) and the pain of the loser(s). This process of organic emotional transformation from your current state to that of a complete stranger is unmatched by any other form of entertainment than live sports. Think of athletes as a character in an engrossing novel, but you can see these characters perform their acts vividly. However, the schedule, demand and expectation placed on modern athletes are making this surreal transformation contrived and lackluster. On top of that, the mental health issues among athletes is diluting the essence of competitive human spirit.
Like most things, this corrosiveness on the aesthetics of sports can be attributed to capitalism. Excruciating demand and expectation on professional athletes have been the norm for the last 30 years, however, the advent of online and digital channels has magnified and compounded this gruesome toil on athletes to unchartered territory. The business of professional sports has one mantra: the more the better. You want to squeeze an extra game for that one occasion or event or ceremony. On the other hand, if an athlete or a team loses a game, he/she or the team is vilified not only in traditional media in the form of analysis but also in the online sphere in the form of racism/sexism or other form ism/phobia. The humiliating public prosecution and overt form of racism that the English black soccer athletes had to face after their defeat in the Euro 2020 final against Italy is hard to fathom. We expect Roger Federer, Virat Kohli, Lebron James, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo etc. to play 10 months out of a year and entertain us at the height of their capabilities and if we are not satisfied then we ostracize them. If we demand that these athletes win every match while entertaining us, then we need to re-evaluate our own mental health.
Some will argue that the compensation these athletes garner for their performances warrants such expectation and having a career as a professional athlete is a voluntary volition. Partly true. However, to derive a psychological satisfaction from someone’s psychological struggle is akin to cannibalism (no pun intended). This dehumanizing feature of the 21st century work culture can be found in Corporate Positions, Show Business, Silicon Valley, Manual Labor and (of course) Wall Street. In his recent article in the New York Times titled the future of work should mean working less, writer Jonathan Malesic writes, “work sits at the heart of Americans’ vision of human flourishing.” In most cultures, hard toil is a virtue. Numerous corporate slogans can be boiled down to one phrase: Keep working. In professional sports, this religious devotion to “work ethic” is taken to the next dimension. The irony is that modern free market values capital disproportionately and capital is generally acquired by inheritance or luck which has nothing to do with work. At the same time, competitive sports have been a vehicle for upward social mobility for numerous people and households.
Given this economic, cultural and social reality, how can we infuse some level of sanity in professional sports? First, we should train our youth to appreciate entertainment in its multitude of incarnations and we as a society should allow the milieu to get bored and not be inundated with stimuli all the time. Second, we should cheer and actively participate in sporting events that unite people, stimulate the economy and give us that adrenaline rush; international events such as the FIFA World Cup and Olympics generally allow us to celebrate sports in a more humane manner. I have my reservation about these events, but that is a story for some other time. Third, seasonal franchise model sporting events should be reformed. Games should be limited and owners should share more of the profit so that the employees - athletes to ball boys to janitors - are not financially affected. If the games are limited, ardent fans may be willing to pay a higher price for tickets and teams might get the same broadcasting revenue as before. To sum up, limiting the number of games won’t bankrupt the sporting franchise or derail an athlete's career. If anything, this might add more sustenance to the live events in the long-run.
When Tom Brady throws a football, we admire his accuracy, athleticism, longevity, competitive drive and sheer desire to excel. In essence, we see and feel a version of ourselves reincarnated in someone’s flesh and bones. This is the power of competitive sports: to admire nature for giving a species like us through the process of evolution. If possible, we should not hackney this truly quintessential feature of being humans.
(The author is an Education Management Consultant at Islington College.)