Our sports-watching affliction

Isn't it bad enough that the hurricane season is still around? Now we have the World Series bearing down on us with all of its predictable sound and fury and heavy breathing signifying less than nothing. Karl Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn't religion, it's spectator sports. What else would explain the astounding fact that millions of otherwise intelligent human beings, some of them evidently adult in other respects, feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential?

Children are downright eager to be taken in, but after all, they do all sorts of things that are, well, childish. So when they avidly pore over the vacuous images and vital statistics of muscular semimorons, or traipse enthusiastically to the stadium, it is easy to make allowances. But what can we say about the rest - the supposed grown-ups?

Not that I would try to stop anyone from root, root, rooting to his or her heart's content. In desperation, if threatened with starvation, I suppose that I would root, root, root for dinner. But for the home team? Never.

In 1994, there was a baseball strike, and the season was canceled in early August, along with the World Series. The first time ever, we were told in hushed tones. A national trauma from which our collective memory, not to mention our very existence as a people, might never recover.

Baseball had survived world wars, cold wars, hot dogs - even night games, the designated hitter and Astroturf - only to succumb to a labor dispute between spoiled millionaire players and even more spoiled billionaire owners. How could it be autumn without baseball, the pundits pouted? And, most portentously, how could we be us without our spectator fix?

Roger Angell spilled his lacerated soul across the pages of The New Yorker, in what appeared to be genuine anguish: "For this old fan, it has felt like a death - a realization that comes back miserably each morning, a moment or two after awakening; and an emptiness, still there each evening, that one puts out of one's mind only with sleep."

But wait. Here is heresy indeed: Was it really a national disaster when a bunch of grossly overpaid, barely literate prima donnas refused to chase balls on artificial grass? Or when these paragons are revealed to be hormonally enhanced as well as ethically and intellectually challenged? Or if a college football team is denied a bowl slot? Is life so dull and unsatisfying that it must be experienced vicariously in order to be savored?

Here are some belated suggestions for Mr. Angell and his fellow sufferers, past and future: You might try reading a book, talking with your family, going for a walk, wrestling with the dog, listening to music, making love.

Let me be clear: It is not the doughty doing of sports that is so ill-conceived, but the woeful watching of it and the ridiculous rooting.

Nor is it a uniquely American affliction. Spectator sports may be a true "cross-cultural universal," in which the soccer ball has the kind of global recognition to which Esperanto once unsuccessfully aspired.

The details of spectatorship, nonetheless, owe much to local flavoring: Among Canadians, hockey worship is so pervasive that, according to rumor, even the recent lockout and cancellation of the 2004-2005 season didn't prevent sellout crowds from showing up just to watch the ice-resurfacing machines go round the empty rinks. In Afghanistan, the rage - except for brief banishment under the Taliban - is buzkashi, a violent and tumultuous game seemingly devoid of rules, in which thousands of onlookers go berserk while hundreds of mounted riders try to carry off the headless corpse of a goat.

But as the wise man suggested to the fabled king, who, as the story goes, had been looking for a statement that was always valid: This too shall pass ... until the Super Bowl.

David P. Barash is professor of psychology at the University of Washington, ©2005 Los Angeles Times syndicate.

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