Watching sport is like eating fibre—it does no harm and it cleans out the systemby Benjamin Markovits / May 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
Sailors like to spin the line that the hours you spend on the water don’t count towards the final tally of life. You get them for free, they’re extra. I’ve felt that way about watching sports.
My mother used to bug us about the way we spent whole summer days and weekends and post-school afternoons in front of the television. Glotzen is the German word. When my grandfather came to visit us in Texas, he snapped us all on the sofa in the television room. Under the photo in the family album he wrote the caption: Die Markovits Kinder glotzen wieder—they’re staring again. But somehow we managed to persuade my mother, who had zero interest in sports, that watching a ballgame didn’t count towards our TV allowance.
And the truth is, I sort of believe it. Watching sports is like eating fibre; it does no harm and cleans out the system. What you are watching is people who have spent their whole lives trying to get good at something specific, doing that specific thing. Aesthetically, also, sports tend to please—like good art, they combine pattern-formation with the sense of randomness, a feeling of withheld intention. The arrangement of colours on a snooker table, for example, or the pinballing of a football on a green field.
The trouble with most television is that it infects you slowly with its worldview. It’s hard after years of exposure to resist the explanations and self-justifications of people from TV dramas, sitcoms and reality shows: I didn’t miss him, I missed the idea of him… Then, in weak moments, you call on their plot-producing feelings and -decisions as justification for your own: if you love me, you have to set me free, and so on. But the plots of games are simple and logical and reflect a hard kind of realism. You have to be lucky, talented, work incredibly hard and keep your nerve—and you’ll still probably fail.
I don’t actually like going to matches much. I’m not there for the social occasion, and the presence of other people gets in the way. And there’s something about the large-scale conformity of crowds that spooks me a little: thousands of people cheering for the same thing, chanting the same name. Plus, you can see the action better on TV, especially with HD. Cricket is particularly hopeless. Too much of what matters takes place at the micro level—a ball spinning in the air or nicking the edge of a bat. Football is maybe an exception, you can see the whole pitch at once, but you have to put up with the zombie-walk of crowds through the turnstiles to get in, and out again to the car park or the station when it’s over. Not to mention the price. The whole business feels like a kind of subservience to strangers. Plus, it’s harder afterwards to go out and play ball yourself.
Not that I watch much now—we don’t have Sky or BT or whatever competence you need to stream the games legally or illegally. Sometimes, though, when the rest of the family are out or in bed and there’s a match on I’d have liked to watch, I turn on the radio.
All the usual advantages of radio apply—it’s a presence in the room rather than a focus. You can make a cup of tea or empty the dishwasher or get a beer from the fridge without interrupting what’s going on. I listen to the Champions League this way. Of course, no matter how good the commentators are it’s impossible to communicate the complexity of what’s happening on the pitch. But something does get communicated—a kind of weather, the presence of the crowd, the ebb and flow of event. In moments of drama you hear not the words but the rising excitement of the commentator, followed by the outburst of a goal or the sudden silence of a missed chance. All that complexity has been reduced to something like pure feeling.
Part of the point of radio of course is to delude you into thinking you’re part of the conversation—in the pub with some mates, watching the game. Or at the cricket, half-falling asleep, while the summer’s day goes on without you.
When you turn it off again, the world shrinks into a room, the hours start ticking again.