The Saving Grace of Sport

Why we watch & play

In the context of historical import, few things could be less consequential than the winner of the Nineteen-Anything World Series, Super Bowl, World Cup, U.S. name it. Yes, Jesse Owens’s spectacular triumphs in the 1936 Berlin Olympics rang with racial and political resonance, but the games themselves had little to do with the emerging war in Europe or with culture thereafter. As a continuing ritual, reintroduced to the world in the nineteenth century, the Olympics do reflect our admiration for the skill and daring, the perseverance and dedication, that we associate with high athletic achievement. What we celebrate, however, are general cultural values that would remain whether the Olympics took place or, as happened during World War II, they did not.

Nevertheless, be it the Olympics or a bowling-league playoff, the World Series or a Little League championship, we tend to invest in sports a measure of attention and emotional intensity out of all seeming proportion to their civic or moral relevance. Some see this behavior as, at best, a sign of attenuated (usually male) adolescence; at worst, adult idiocy tremulous with all manner of pathology.

While such observations have merit, they are, I would argue, observations validated mainly in extreme cases and too often insensitive to the concept and role of sport as ritual. Among other things, ritual is a cultural and psychic activity that enables...

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About the Author

John Savant, professor emeritus at Dominican University of California, lives in San Rafael, California.