Last Call

Switching Off, Switching On

Do we spend too much time watching sports?

By From the March 2011 issue

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Every year after the Super Bowl, I pull the plug on sports. Football is over, baseball has yet to start, and I don't much care about other sports except boxing, which is not a game and has no season, anyway. I can never resist a plunge into melancholy, not because the games are over but because, whatever joys watching sports might bring, doing so is unavoidably a waste of precious hours. So I return to the vow of hopeless souls everywhere: never again.

That promise always seems plausible, though, no matter how many times it's broken. Switching off the games I rediscover, away from the consuming involvement they inevitably impose, that sports are like those good-time friends from your youth -- the ones whose absence is felt acutely for a day or two, and then not at all. I think this is because sports events, unlike works of art, have expiration dates -- namely, the moment the contest ends.

Even the greatest of games is only truly great when it's happening. Forever afterwards, it is the property of memory, a poor substitute for the original struggle (though an attractive one for cable sports channels, which fill hours of programming with old games and documentaries). If you're interested in the Super Bowl, you can't miss the broadcast, because the game will only be played once. Sure, you can watch it on tape, but with its outcome already determined, the entirety of its drama is missing. No amount of fooling yourself (also known as TiVo) can suffice: watching sports relies on suspense and the assumption that the great deeds we hope to witness are occurring as we watch. By contrast, you can miss the broadcast of, say, a Macbeth production and watch it at home on tape the next day-or next week or next year. Macbeth's drama occurs in a perpetual present; he can kill the king whenever you're ready. Not so Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger or their brave comrades. For them, it's now or never, with or without you.

Only watching a game live really counts -- which is why, on the occasions when I haven't done so, I sometimes forget to care about the result. I can think of only one exception to this principle in my lifetime, and it just so happens to be the most exceptional of all sports events: the U.S. hockey team's upset of the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. That game was in fact shown on tape delay, after news of the Americans' astonishing victory was known. One does not quibble with the broadcast arrangements for a genuine miracle, and besides, you couldn't help but watch the replay just to make sure that it had really happened.

Generally speaking, though, getting away from the gun-to-the-head immediacy of live sports is liberating. Turned off, sports cannot reach me, because nothing about them has any bearing on anything else. Irrelevance, of course, is fundamental to sports' appeal. They're a self-contained universe, one that millions are grateful to step into, even if most of us stay too long. Anyone who lingers has probably noticed how sports have the uncomfortable capacity to remind us that the rest of our lives rarely seem so charged with desperate meaning. That's one risk, among others, of switching back on, back to the noise of the crowd and the propulsive drama taking place with each pitch or snap of the ball. Our involvement becomes, again, almost involuntary.

This is sports' great paradox: that they can be so all-involving, and yet leave so little trace of their power after the storm passes. They dominate the present moment, crowding out almost everything else -- and lord knows, affecting personal relationships -- but they disappear so completely in the aftermath that one can never quite explain what the whole commotion was about. I wonder if this is the unintended, ironic revenge on the audience by the athlete, who is often doomed to a short career and a lifetime of trying to fill in the gaps. He may not be around long, and he may vanish from our consciousness the moment he's gone, but he takes something of us with him -- our irredeemable time.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.