In species of social animals, rules emerge to govern the animals’ behaviour, complicating biological and other, more general natural laws. The more a species is preoccupied with its social conventions, the more it develops a culture that makes no sense from a foreigner’s perspective, the more the members tend to detach themselves from natural reality, especially if they’re not informed by the link to nature provided by an objective empirical investigation. Without that link, or when citizens favour antiscientific sources of information, which marginalize science in decadent, self-centered and xenophobic societies, the citizens can fiddle while Rome burns. In the latter years of the ancient Roman Empire, gladiators engaged in mock combats and other brutal “games” to distract the citizens from the signs of Rome’s collapse. Had the citizens then a crystal ball in which they could have foreseen the horrors of the Dark Age that would follow the collapse, they might have regarded the games as absurdly, even shamefully divorced from reality. While the barbarians pounded at the gates, the uninformed or deluded masses preferred the spectacle of more controlled warfare which maintained the illusion of Roman hegemony. Just as the emperor dictated whatever happened on the mock battlefield in the microcosm which was the Coliseum, with a mere raising or lowering of his thumb, so too his military crushed foreign uprisings.
Today, there are numerous mainstream sports, including tennis, golf, baseball, soccer, football, hockey, basketball, curling, and cricket, which are relatively harmless diversions, although their players are often injured. Then there are more brutal sports, such as hunting, boxing, mixed martial arts (MMA), sumo wrestling, and dog or cock fighting. What's the relationship between these kinds of sport, and what does that relationship teach us about ourselves?
Games and Sports as Models of Nature
A game is a form of play or amusement, while a sport is a type of game that requires bodily exertion. So chess, for example, is a game but not a sport. Chess is played between minds, not bodies, and thus evolutionary history and the laws of biochemistry, which determine a body’s aptitudes, are irrelevant to how that game is played. True, psychological factors, such as memory capacity, account for differences in players’ skill level, but these are incidental since chess is an artificial world, governed by arbitrary rules and stipulations of meaning, and played on a game board that’s symbolically detached from natural (non-human-made) reality. What distinguishes chess from a mental patient’s insane fantasy is that chess is based on a metaphor that simplifies a natural phenomenon, in this case warfare. A game, then, is like a scientific model in that the game abstracts from some natural phenomenon, as a much-simplified analogy that represents only a few key features of what’s modeled and filling in the rest of the picture with stipulations. (In science, a stipulation of this kind is called a ceteris paribus condition, which means that while a scientific model of DNA, for example, may not perfectly replicate every actual feature of the DNA molecule, the model is adequate for practical purposes as long as any significant factor left out of the model is assumed not to impinge when the model is applied in a particular situation. Thus, everything in the world outside of the model’s simplified picture is stipulated as being--somewhat euphemistically--“equal,” which is to say, practically irrelevant for the purpose of scientific understanding.)
At the opposite end of the spectrum from chess, there are natural competitions played out with a minimum of artificial rules and thus with greater dependence on natural forces. Somewhere near this end are found certain combat sports, such as boxing or MMA. These sports are still games rather than purely natural fights, because they’re limited by an arbitrary number of rounds, they’re refereed, and they prohibit certain moves such as strikes to the groin. Further towards the extreme end on this side of the spectrum, in which natural laws take precedence over social conventions, would be the ancient gladiatorial “games,” in which combatants fought to the death with fewer rules than in more recent combat sports. (Again, perhaps the main arbitrary rule was that the emperor alone decided who lived or died.) At the most extreme end, there are (mostly illegal) dog or cock fights in which there are almost no artificial rules and natural laws or biological probabilities dictate the outcome. Perhaps the only concessions to artificiality in one of these “games” are the border of the pit in which the animals fight and presumably the stipulation that the playing field is even, that the animals are released simultaneously by their handlers at opposite ends. These human interventions and inevitable abuses of the animals suffice, however, to render these fights unnatural, which is to say aesthetically and ethically appalling.
The Meanings of Game-like Sports
More conventional and popular sports, like baseball or soccer (better known as football), fall more towards the chess end of this spectrum. On the one hand, these games require bodily exertion, which introduces natural law into the proceedings, but these sports are highly regulated, meaning that the play is governed by many arbitrary rules. Moreover, each of these sports models some more natural phenomenon, employing a metaphor that lends meaning to the sport even if this meaning can fade as the metaphor becomes stale over time. Thus, as the Al Capone character explains in the famous scene of the film, The Untouchables, baseball is founded on a political metaphor that celebrates the balance of individualism with socialism: the players stand alone when at bat, but operate as a team when in the field. When Americans might have felt more united, after the Great Depression or during honourable and necessary wars, baseball’s social metaphor might still have been poignant. In the current Manichean United States, the metaphor is stale and so baseball’s no longer uplifting; instead, the sport degenerates into a business that entertains with what most inured players and spectators alike surely feel are meaningless rituals. (Perhaps the current popularity of baseball in Japan indicates that its social metaphor still holds sway over more unified Japanese society.)
In fact, apart from American football and what North Americans call soccer, most sports in western societies have lost any deep meaning they may once have had. Granted, each sport has its rabid fans, but the downside of any game-like sport, meaning any sport governed more by artificial than natural laws, is that the sport depends on--at best--a loose analogy which is its sole meaningful connection to some natural process, and metaphors inevitably lose their potency over time. Thus, the older the sport, the less meaningful its vicissitudes to current players or spectators. Indeed, the metaphor that originally motivates play (consciously or otherwise) according to some set of conventions may be forgotten entirely so that the sport's later participants have no idea what the sport is supposed to mean.
Currently, golf is viewed as a rich person’s sport. Partly this is because golf clubs and regular access to golf courses are expensive, but this stereotype is also due to the sport’s underlying presupposition of social class. The caddie represents a member of the lower class who performs the grunt work, toiling in mills, mines, or factories and providing a sort of launching pad for the oligarch, or godlike upper class member, to jet from one part of the globe to another and at his leisure perhaps perform the miracle of a hole-in-one. The golf course thus signifies the wilderness or the third world slum over which the oligarch’s spirit sails with the golf ball towards its destiny in the relatively miniscule hole, which is thus mostly removed from that tainted world. That is, the disproportion between the puniness of the golf ball and of its resting place in the hole, on the one hand, and the vast undulating course, on the other, symbolizes a dualistic class ideology. Golf is thus about avoiding or exploiting circumstances for the solo player’s exclusive benefit, ideally on the backs of lesser mortals. Regardless of whether golf was invented with this elitist ideology in mind, its popularity today especially with successful businesspeople seems to indicate some such underlying meaning.
Basketball, hockey, and American football are formally, if not historically, variations on what North Americans call soccer. In each case, teams guard their home territory and earn points by invading their opponent’s home. The metaphor is that of warfare, with the court, rink, or field representing the neutral battle zone, and the hoop, net, or goal posts representing the civilian territory which economically empowers the soldiers, or the players of each team. This metaphor is clear enough, but the popularity of each sport in different countries reveals cultural differences between them. American football is idolized within the US, which surely indicates the height of American martial values, that is, that country’s romantic view of the glory of war, as well as its fetish for industrial efficiency. As long as an American soldier is fully operational and outfitted with the world’s supreme military hardware, the soldier is held sacred as a flawless instrument of American hegemony, but as soon as the soldier returns from war with a limb missing or in a casket, the spell is broken, the myth of America’s manifest destiny is reduced to so much empty rhetoric, and so the soldier is generally shunned or hidden from view.
While African-Americans excel at most American sports, their dominance is most complete in basketball. I’d venture to speculate, then, that to the extent that basketball still resonates as a model of warfare, the war in question is presupposed to be that which might be fought in the future between genetically-altered super soldiers. African-Americans were originally brought to the US as slaves and were artificially bred, in part, for manual labour. The most popular level of American basketball, in the NBA, features mostly African-American giants who stun spectators by symbolically invading the opponent’s home territory and leaping and dunking the ball in virtually superhuman fashion. Again, to the extent that basketball has any emotional force as a game that idealizes some aspect of real life, the sport is more a promissory note prophesying future warfare in which superhuman soldiers will penetrate the foe’s civilian territory and annihilate its people like angels of death descending from the clouds. A monstrous speculation, to be sure, but such are the predilections of social animals that even this speculation is plausible.
As for hockey, which is naturally most popular in cold countries such as Canada or Russia, the reasons for the shared popularity nevertheless differ, depending on the country. Hockey is popular in Russia, because the sport models warfare and Russians have a highly militaristic, imperial history. This is not so with respect to Canada, so in Canada hockey’s popularity is explainable in terms of the sport’s substituting for war as opposed to its modeling much in the way of actual Canadian war-waging. In this case, Canadians are currently so pacific that the relatively tame violence in a hockey game can satisfy whatever animalistic interest in bloodshed they nevertheless harbour. This is surely also why fist-fighting in North American hockey is tolerated despite its superficial absurdity, that is, its glaring irrelevance to the official game, and the politically correct calls for its abolition. (Players aren’t ejected for fighting in the NHL, and although this includes American teams, Canadian culture historically has had a larger impact on the sport.)
And as for the sport which North Americans call soccer, the paradoxical overwhelming popularity of this martial sport in Europe, Brazil, and in other, currently peaceful societies is explainable if we attend to the curious persistence of a cowardly form of cheating in that sport, which is the player’s pretending to be injured after a “challenge” by another player, and his melodramatic flailing and collapse to garner the referee’s sympathy and thus a penalty against the opposing team. You’d think no red-blooded man could willingly emasculate himself in such a fashion, especially when in closely-watched matches cameras tend to capture every detail with almost microscopic clarity, revealing the ruse in exquisite slow motion. However, not only does such cowardice succeed, unless the referee happens to have seen firsthand what transpired, but the allegedly injured player typically limps off of the field or is even carried off in a stretcher only to reemerge moments later, quite unharmed. And this whole practice persists, game after game, year after year. Why?
Because while this sport is fundamentally about mock warfare, peaceful populations celebrate their ironic use of the sport to symbolize the subversion of the martial instinct by the ruse of UN diplomacy. Without the unmanly cheating, a soccer/football game would proceed as a straightforward (if hideous) model of war (since war itself is always hideous). But when the tide of a game can turn with an opportune case of literally falling down on the job, by an apparent clown dressed as a symbolic soldier, the subtext becomes clear: the weakness of international law, backed as it is by no global military power, can yet counteract our bloodlust. Just as liberals wish that the sophistry of a UN speech against a nation that's on the precipice of war can prevent the war from occurring, so too weak nations put their spin on the ancient form of soccer/football, by introducing an element of chicanery into the play. And after a match, the players ritualistically don each other’s shirts, signifying the oneness of humanity and further circumventing the martial symbolism. No wonder more truculent countries like the US find soccer distasteful!
The Superiority of Natural to Artificial Sports
To sum up, then, sports either lose their meaning entirely over time, as in US baseball; retain their original meaning, as in US football; or gain new meaning as the metaphor is tweaked to suit current circumstances, as in soccer in relatively peaceful societies. Even when game-like sports currently excite their fans, however, the fans are more likely reacting instinctively to the action than appreciating the sport’s deeper meaning. Moreover, sports metaphors and rituals aren’t easily idolized in the postmodern climate in which all metanarratives are distrusted. Still, game-like sports are formally the same as religions and they serve for many so-called secularists as substitutes for traditional forms of worship. Indeed, current mainstream sports, like baseball, basketball, and hockey, are comparable to ancient Rome’s stale jingoistic, familial cults that only formally unified the Romans without addressing their angst. As Rome declined, Roman citizens naturally became more worried, but instead of offering wisdom in that time of turmoil, their native myths were so many pieces of transparent political propaganda, as in the imperial cults which deified Roman emperors. Seemingly to fill the vacuum, the more mystical Eastern religions, such as Gnosticism, swept across the West, attracting many devotees. Simultaneously, between the first century BCE to the second century CE, Romans flocked to the gladiatorial games.
Likewise, there are currently signs of Western decline and of discontent with the West’s unofficial state religions. These religions include secular humanism, secularized and emasculated Christianity, a sort of Stoic or pragmatic head-in-the-sand consumerism, but also sports fanaticism. (See Scientism and Christian Chutzpah.) As I said, game-like sports offer dualistic myths and rituals due to their artificiality and thus their detachment from natural reality. Fans enjoy the illusion of escaping the tyranny of natural law, to a level of cultural complexity in which humans rule literally by dictating laws that govern the course of events. At its best, a game-like sport might function like a scientific model, presenting an idealization of some natural phenomenon that directs our efforts to exploit the metaphor’s insight and improve on the world. For example, in the case of a pure mind game, chess might inspire sympathy for the grunts who perform the dirty work in wars, given the starkness of the game’s contrast between pawns and the more powerful game pieces. More often, though, game-like sports degenerate into empty, trivial formalities. Even when the outcome of a match can’t be predicted, the mainstream sport fails to enchant for long because its foundational metaphor loses touch with the realities of the fast-changing postmodern world.
Moreover, just as the ancient Romans turned to Eastern mysticism for relief from their angst-ridden doubts, Westerners now turn to New Age pseudoscience or to internet conspiracy theories. And just as the Romans seemed distracted by the gladiatorial games, MMA is currently the fastest growing Western sport. Partly, this surge of interest is due, first, to an increase in male bloodlust in reaction to feminism, as speculated by the novel and movie, Fight Club, and to the impossibility of successfully competing with machines for labour-intensive jobs; and second, in the US, to the increasing cultural impact of the military-industrial-entertainment complex. There are plenty of meatheads who enjoy watching mixed martial arts purely for the action. These are the fans who would always root for the overdog, because they want to see a human body physically destroyed, and they’re likely also fans of torture porn, a despicable subgenre of the horror movie.
Still, mixed martial arts also have their well-known spiritual side, originating as they did from the need for Shaolin monks to defend themselves against bandits. MMA encourages the pursuit of numerous secular virtues such as courage, honour, discipline, humility, and solidarity through camaraderie. More to the point, MMA falls on the opposite side of pure games in the spectrum of mind games, sports, and natural competitions. Recall that on the side of games like chess, natural forces have relatively minimal impact on the playing field and natural laws are less relevant than conventions that split the game off from nature. Games are thus dualistic and otherworldly, which allow them to serve as substitutes for traditional religions. At the other end there are natural conflicts like hunting and fighting with only minimal regulation or artificiality. These conflicts are comparatively monistic and naturalistic, meaning that they encourage the celebration of divinity within the natural world. That is to say, in so far as naturalistic sports have religious potential, their underlying myths are pantheistic.
In the case of MMA, the combat’s significance is that its action proceeds without politically correct censorship or other regulatory illusions. Again, the thrill of worshipping our godlike power of creating cultural worlds, including the worlds that play out in game space, is alluring from a Nietzschean perspective, and aesthetically or ethically uplifting cultural products should be admired. But when a culture as a whole rots from the inside and its idols fail to enchant or inspire, the pursuit of transcendence through dualistic myths and rituals only furthers the social degeneration, and game-like sports become escapist fantasies, idle hobbies, or corrupting businesses. Set against the tedious formalities of baseball, the pitiful substitute for war in the case of Canadian hockey, the underhanded apology for diplomacy in soccer (outside the US), the shameless celebration of oligarchic privilege in golf, and the brutish glorification of war in basketball and American football, the rise of MMA potentially advances what I’ve called an unembarrassing, viable postmodern religion. (See Postmodern Religion.)
In more game-like sports, athletes demonstrate awesome skills, but their victories are rendered absurd or tragic because of the lack of any compelling myth to elevate their competitions. In MMA, by contrast, the fighters succeed or fail more as beasts than pseudogods; the fighters train hard, but their contests are much more natural than artificial. A fight is essentially a series of violent physical collisions between body parts until one of the bodies is unable to continue. MMA is still a sport rather than a purely natural or wild conflict, because in the UFC and other MMA organizations, the fights are regulated by referees, judges, doctors, rounds, time limits, and so on. But the creative and destructive powers of nature shine through an MMA match, and an ideal religion should prescribe reverence for that power, without muddying the waters with delusions.