Sports: modernity’s nostrum for the missing moral certainty of a bygone age

The sports fan, however, is in an uncommonly powerless position: No fan can change the outcome of a game. So why devote so much attention and passion to a process whose outcome one cannot hope to influence? Such misplaced devotion can seem meaningless, or worse, a renunciation of the obligation to continuously better ourselves.

Furthermore, unlike a seventeenth-century Calvinist, we don’t think we face the ultimate possibilities of salvation and damnation. The outcomes of our pursuits in life are far less circumscribed. Instead, we grapple with many, smaller potential outcomes: that automation or government budget cuts might render our jobs obsolete or that nuclear terrorism could disrupt civilization as we know it. Life is in many ways easier today, but it is also much more uncertain.

Sports, on the other hand, offer a way to travel back to a bygone age. The Super Bowl allows me to adopt a standpoint of utter moral certainty, whereby the Panthers represent all that is good and virtuous and the opposing Denver Broncos are manifestations of evil. Sports are an arena in which I can take up this fantasy for a brief time and revel in the richness and completeness of the emotions that it brings. I’m also offered the benefit of knowing that the outcome of the contest won’t require me to analyze subtext or trace out extenuating circumstances; the game offers only the joy of victory or the agony of defeat.

Sports provide the rarest of experiences in modern society—an escape into clear-cut-ness. Contemporary life offers little in the way of the explicit contrast between two starkly opposing outcomes that predestination provided. We are tasked with building meaning in our own lives, but we lack the cultural tools to accomplish this. The dichotomies between good and evil, between honorable and shameful conduct, have eroded in the wake of our (legitimate) attention to context and circumstance in assessing other people and the world around us.

–Matthew Braswell, Why It’s Good to Love Football (Or Any Sport)

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