The Sports Cult


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sportsAs many of you know, I used to write a very popular column on professional wrestling for what was, at the time, the Internet’s 2nd most popular wrestling news site. I stopped writing the column because professional wrestling ceased being interesting to me. I used to defend its majesty of storytelling, its roots in the Greek theatre and in medieval morality plays. But the rampant sexism, racism and homophobia eventually became intolerable, even for me. Several of my columns generated a fair bit of email, however, not the least being one on whether pro wrestling qualifies as a sport. (It doesn’t.) Interestingly, many of the emails were furious and hate-filled… because in the column I had dared confess that I do not watch sports.

It’s true. Let me say it again for the record: I, a heterosexual North American male, do not watch sports. Not hockey, not baseball, not football, not even the Olympics. Occasionally, I will catch the odd boxing or MMA match, but only to bring back memories of my feeble martial past.

I was unprepared for the vitriol that followed that confession. Thus I was not entirely surprised when my Toronto Star article on Natalie Glebova, which satirically compared beauty pageants to sporting events, was met with a disapproving email from a sports fan who clearly could not understand the concept of satire. This lead to an email from a friend (who shall remain nameless to save him similar email bile) who, in support of my position, waxed vitriolic on his disgust for “the sports cult.” I hope that he will not mind that I have excerpted a portion of his email here:

“One of the rules in this country is that you do not make fun of sports. It offends… the ones who, in a previous era, would have made a cult out of cold showers for young men… The sports cult makes it hard to get people thinking about, oh, say, science and math and engineering — things that require mental effort and emotional stamina — not just the ability to wave a stick around.”

Athleticism has a role in every society. Young men, in particular, with too much testosterone and little guidance will more likely turn to violence and thoughts of sex crime –trust me, they will– if an outlet is not provided for their boundless energies. Both sexes benefit from the discipline, fitness, body awareness, camaraderie and character that competitive sports can offer. I’m all for the promotion of exercise and athleticism as part of a balanced and healthy life curriculum. When I was young, my friends and I played touch football almost every night after school. We were no jocks, but we got our fresh air and our exercise, built some close friendships and developed an important sense of body awareness. When I was 19 I seriously started martial arts training, and this improved my life in a hundred important ways.

I can usually identify someone with no experience playing sports. They’re the ones who stop at the top of excalators to look around, not realizing that a line-up of people is accumulating behind them. They tend to have minimal awareness of their bodies or of those around them.

But advocating an athletic lifestyle is not the same as supporting, as my friend calls it, a “sports cult.”

Rather, the cult manifests on a more overt level. The promotion of team athlete from mere healthy participant to gloried gladiator creates the foundation of the sports industry. When egos become attached to athletic accomplishment, the aforementioned benefits of athleticism are erased; athletes become jerks who are more likely to have thoughts of violence and sex crime. Moreover, the cult of sports permeates to the most banal levels. In many bars and restaurants, the men’s bathroom is peppered with excerpts from the local newspaper’s sports pages, the implication being that men must be interested in sports, so much so that that is what we wish to read when peeing.

If our society truly valued learning and high intellect, then the space above our urinals would feature word puzzles, real news, excerpts from books or even a map of the world so we can learn geography while we pee. Let us call this the urinal quotient, the measurement of society’s value system by what we are expected read while urinating.

My friend believes our society’s kowtowing to the sports cult to be indicative of what he calls the “Anglo-Celtic” value system. There is some truth to this, as the sports cult is marketed in tandem with other pasttimes which the media promotes as being exclusively Anglo-Celtic, most of which can be gleaned from watching any beer commercial (all of which feature the same kinds of people). Other cultures’ value sytems are not much better in this respect, however. As the world’s culture continues to become homogenized, let us hope that abasement to the sports cult is not a characteristic that survives the melding.

There was an episode of the defunct sci-fi series Sliders in which the heroes travelled to an alternate Earth on which intellect was as highly respected as sports. In fact, the two had melded. That world’s celebrities were super-geniuses who could perform great mental feats while playing a basketball-like game. I bet their urinal quotient was much different from ours.