Partly, I do this to fit in. It's the most watched event every year and as much of a misfit as I am as a philosophical author, I do like to keep tabs on what the majority of society is up to. It's comforting to share a cultural story with so many others.
Partly, I do this to admire others. As Maslow noted, this is one of the higher level needs and desires we possess. I've played a lot of sports in my life and really appreciate the talent and dedication it takes to be a professional athlete. Their grace, power, coordination, and decision-making abilities are a wondrous sight to behold.
And partly, I do this because sports is great drama. As noted filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Wall-E) said in his TED talk about "The clues to a great story", drama is anticipation mixed with uncertainty. This is exactly sports in a nutshell. We anticipate that someone will win, but when two evenly matched teams meet on the field, we really don't know what will happen.
But these partial explanations are true for most sports. Why has football in particular - and the Super Bowl itself - captured the highest point in the sporting landscape? And why is that the one American sporting event I still go way out of my way to enjoy no matter where I am in the world?
Surely there are many small reasons about the Americanness of the game, the nature of the rules which allows for many commercial breaks (important to its money making prowess as well as providing time for particularly entertaining ads during the biggest game of the year), and perhaps even the primal adrenaline rush we get from watching such a fast and violent sport. But intellectually, I like to believe that there is a deeper underlying cause for football's popularity.
Possibly the biggest theme that runs through my Evolutionary Philosophy is the need for wisdom to judge the balance required between the two basic strategies for survival - competition and cooperation. No other options best explain the actions we choose between whenever we interact with another form of life and I would argue that no other sport requires the balance of these two strategies at such a high level. In baseball, basketball, soccer (English Football as I like to call it), tennis, hockey, or any other sport I can think of, individual players play a much larger role in the outcome of the game. And on the flip side, individual players can also take more time off from contributing to the success of their team if they choose to do so. In football, especially the modern variation played at the level of the NFL, all 11 players on the field for each side have to coordinate with their teammates to block, tackle, cover, draw attention, or move the ball in extremely complex choreographed ways. The after-match analysis of the NFL can be almost as complex as chess literature, yet the game itself moves at speeds and strengths that are just awesome to watch for an average person.
That's the good side of sports and football. Now for the bad news. In addition to the season-long concerns about head trauma and gun culture in the NFL, there have been so many bad stories about sports in the past month that I wonder if we are at a crossroads where the balance between competition and cooperation has moved so far out of whack that the future of professional sports is in real doubt. Players say it, the President expresses concerns for it, and even marquee events like the Pro Bowl may be cancelled because essentially, the game has become too dangerous to play well when nothing is on the line.
And it's not just football that has been affected. In early January, no one was elected into baseball's Hall of Fame because of concerns about the steroid use era. In mid January, Lance Armstrong confessed to a massive history of doping and a coordinated effort to lie about it. At the end of January, there was an interview by essayist Chuck Klosterman that gave us the story of Houston Rocket Royce White and his concerns about how the NBA is handling mental illness and the ills of modern society. And finally, on February 1st, the most read sportswriter in America wrote a long story on Performance Enhancing Drugs and what it has done to the modern sports athlete as well as the perception of normal observers.
So many specific questions arose during this time period - who did what, when did they do it, why did they do it, who helped, who covered it up, etc., etc., but I want to tackle one general question about these crises in professional sports that I was really surprised to see gain some traction:
Why don't we just let athletes do whatever they want?
Here's why. Because it's bad. As in objectively the opposite of good. From the standpoint of the evolutionary philosophy I have developed so far, basic tenet #5 describes what I mean by "good":
5. A universal definition of good arises from nature. Good is that which enables the long-term survival of life.
Clearly, many of the PEDs and blood doping practices and violent collisions that are commonplace in professional sports these days are detrimental to the long-term health of the participants. Prizes of money, the trappings of fame, and the lure of historical immortality are so great that individuals will sacrifice themselves for the hope of these gains, but should we as a society let them? To me, the obvious answer is no. I do not want to bear witness to that kind of sacrifice. Like wild animals who do not fight to the death for mating privileges, we should compete up to a point. Beyond that, we should go no further. Unlike the other animals though, our point can be placed much further down the spectrum of danger to oneself. Can we eliminate all risks? Surely not. But we can sensibly debate where lines are to be drawn and we can continue research to tell us if they need to be adjusted. Does this mean some currently banned substances should be allowed? Probably. Let's conduct real inquiries into that using the long-term survival of life as our guide.
From some basic understandings of evolution, particularly that of Evolutionarily Stable Systems, we know that: "Systems remain evolutionarily stable when cheaters do not continually win." Once cheating is allowed to succeed, the rules change, and the system becomes unstable. Sports can have such great benefit to our physical and mental health, our need for play, our love of a good story, and for learning and practicing the wisdom required to balance self vs. society, short term vs. long term, and competition vs. cooperation. When cheaters continually undermine this system, they threaten to bring the whole thing crashing down. This is not something we should be prepared to allow. Not for the sake of money, not for the sake of TV ratings, and certainly not for the sake of appearance.
As a society, we must cooperate to survive. Cooperation is enhanced when cheaters are punished and their tarnished reputations are spread to the rest of the group. In that spirit, let's hope these latest public examples of cheaters leads to a change in the way we view cheating, a change in the way we view competition vs. cooperation, and a change to a brighter future for honest competition up to the point that it is beneficial for the long-term survival of life.