Spectator Sports, the Pathologies of Competition and Hero Worship

By David Ramírez

Photo credit from the movie "300'. Warner Brothers (2006).

Photo credit from the movie “300.” Warner Brothers (2006).

I do no watch sport events on television, much less attend one—unless it was for a social gesture, which is rare I would accept. Overall, sport events do not have any appeal for me, and I remain perplexed as to why people, especially men, find them appealing to the point of obsession. I generally find them a waste of time, and may cause more stress than joy. From a neurobiological perspective, I can intellectually appreciate how our evolutionary process made the male gender of our species have a preference for the analytical and the competitive, but I find it quite distasteful, even evil, the way this very natural embedded biological drive is exploited commercially and socially.

Most sports, as a form of exercise, in and of themselves do bring positive physical and mental health benefits for the people who practice them, such as controlling weight, improving the immune system thereby preventing disease, boosting mood and energy.[1] Competitive sports, however, can be a double edge sword.

As long as it is understood a competitive game is for a friendly match, and whoever loses or wins does not carry further implications than the match results themselves, then all remains as a gentlemen’s/ladies’ agreement. Competitive sports also encourage the individual to strive for excellence, which is a positive quality that also reflect on education, the work ethic, and—though not always—in personal relationships, and from the individual to the rest of society.

Sports in general, a domain of the male gender, offers a way for men to bond and relate to each other—though this form of bonding remains, for the most part, shallow and inconsequential for meaningful spiritual growth. It is good, however nominally and minimally—but from a general male perspective at least enough.[2]

On the dark side, when people take their competitive sports too seriously, it is cause for rivalries, insults, banter and other negative responses that may affect the individual psychologically when pegged in a superior/inferior station. When placed in the inferior station, this has other consequences on the individual and those around him, such as frustration, impatience, anger—for something that really lacks any intrinsic meaning, value or purpose.

Furthermore, the competitive team sports are a non-lethal (for most of them) representation of the war stage, and the very language and attitudes utilized to express the very actions of the team sport reflects its war-like purpose.[3] Violence is an intrinsic component of competitive sports.[4]

All of the above goes too for spectator sports.

Competitive sports as spectator sports carry a pathology of hero worship, which becomes embodied in the most talented individuals of the team. Together with the war-like nature of team sports, it makes the audiences of team sports predisposed to the winner/looser mentality. The human being being a social animal par excellence, driven by the fear of being alone as an outcast, naturally gravitates towards the winning team. That gravitational pull also creates the need to identify the best talents within the team, which is accompanied by a dose of admiration for the player’s skills, scores and advancement. It is the player’s talents on the field which become important, not his character as a human being. This carries unintended consequences.

As we have seen plenty of times with many sports personalities in the last few years, their sportsmanship excellence does not necessarily translate in excellent moral actions. Given the highly profitable aspect of being a sport star in our current age of corporate monetizing individuals, many sport stars lead a lifestyle full of excess and debauchery.[5]

This has adverse effects on the population, particularly among men, because it endorses and tolerates immoral behavior when the individual meets or excels his job goals or outward social expectations. The social male identification with his heroes thus allow for the imitation of the hero’s similar, same or worse immoral actions, or allows for a silent endorsement—sometimes justification—of the star’s misdeeds. This particularly has become reflected in college team sports, where the college sports stars are given preferential treatment above his/her classmates, their immoral actions tolerated by the college authorities,[6] and generally ‘given a pass’ whereas others would not be so lucky.

The use of sports as a preparation for the war field in a college setting is something that was strategically designed since WWII, as discussed by Steven Stark:

“Sports and war have been closely linked in the minds of Americans for generations, which many Europeans find unusual. The first colleges to make sports a major part of student life, in addition to the Ivies, were the military academies. They did so for some of the same reasons as the elite schools—athletics instilled character, etc.—but also because Army and Navy endorsed the old General Wellington idea that battles were won and lost on the playing fields of youth. The better the sports program, they reasoned, the better the soldier, in a reverse of all those recent team talks. (In fact, “Anchors Aweigh,” the official song of the Navy, began as a football song in 1906.)”[7]

Additionally, in a sports-drench society such as the United States, the aura of the winners/losers scenario also mindlessly predisposes the nation to be ready to go to war, without ever thinking of the human and economic cost war entails. Even when having in its history the painful memories and consequences of war, spectator competitive sports keep the population sedated and ready for more action.

That is the social, cultural, emotional and human toll of that equation; now with the economic one. As activist Ralph Nader—a sports fan himself[8]—discusses in his article “New Sports Exposé,” [9]

“While sports started as a form of play, recreation, and fun for family and friends, they have increasingly become commercialized and professionalized spectacles… The result is our games suffer from a general soul sickness, resulting in problems that are zapping the human spirit out of the games[.]”

Nader blames the shift to the commercialization of sports, which in the U.S. runs as a self-regulated monopoly, cashing a whopping $435 billions in 2012 alone, “much bigger [profit] than the U.S. auto industry, movie industry and many others.” Reflecting on Dr. Ken Reed’s book How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan,[10] Nader points to the ills corporatized sports are wrecking on U.S. society:

“According to Reed, it’s ego and greed, and the win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) policies and mentalities those vices have spawned throughout the world of sports.

In fact, it is these WAAC and PAAC policies and mentalities that are the foundation of the numerous issues Reed addresses in his book, including: adult-dominated youth sports; the demise of physical education and intramural sports in our schools; militaristic coaches that berate and abuse our young athletes; the lack of adequate concussion safety protocols and return-to-play guidelines throughout sports; a college sports model in which athletes’ economic and civil rights are denied; wealthy pro sports owners who hold taxpayers hostage in order to get publicly-financed sports palaces built; and an ongoing lack of equal opportunity in sports for female, disabled, and LGBT athletes and administrators. The list goes on.”

As he eventually realizes with Reed’s book, the problem of mass delusion really lies with spectator sports. Besides pointing to the abuses played on the players, he goes on to relate to the health problems sport spectators have,

“[I]n a University of Arkansas, Little Rock study, highly identified sports fans had significantly higher health risk behaviors than non-sports fans on a range of health behavior measures, including a higher Body Mass Index (BMI), along with higher fat, fast food and alcohol consumption.”

And the moral blank check the media and corporate sports gives to the scandals created by their spoiled brats,

“Reed… points out that the media will occasionally identify scandals, and other symptoms of problems in the sports world, but then stop. What’s left missing is a discussion regarding how to mitigate these problems…Why? Because sports media corporations, and most sports journalists, have too much invested, economically and psychologically in the current system to push for significant change.”

Translation: All weasels involved in corporate sports worry more for their income than for human dignity.

There is little hope corporate sports will change, since their whole reason for its existence is to make money at the expense of human lives, debasing culture and human values. Can awareness of these problems among sport fans be the hope for change? Would they be willing to take away the power of corporate sports by simply no longer participating in their blood-sucking sham?

I am very skeptic this will change in the near future if one were to focus on the issue of corporate sports only. The very lure of wanting to see the skills of the best-trained and experience athletes, surrounded by all the glitz and glam that self-affirms the aura of masculine and triumphalist attributes—regardless of whether these are biologically or socially driven—, keeps sport fans gravitating to attend in some way or another such events, even at exponentially rising costs which are pricing out the middle-class.[11]

People, and U.S. Americans of all people, passionately love their entertainment.[12] Panem et circenses.

Reed proposes to bring back sports to the community level through grassroots activism, which includes engagement with local, state and national authorities. But this on and of itself does not take care of the larger psychological problem of violence intrinsic to competitive sports, which would keep perpetuating the same ills.

How could one impact awareness upon parents, especially dads, about the larger meta-structure driving the mythos of competition away from its savage beginnings, without impressing the fear of emasculation? How is one to refocus the usage of competition sports to more benign purposes other than winning for winning sake?

In essence it would be very simple, which is none other than education. But before we get there, there has to be a tacit acceptance by society at large of the ills spectator competition sports has wrecked into our children, health (both physical and psychological), economy, world-affairs, and humanity overall. And for that to happen there has to be an awareness built by activists to near or an equal measure of that of commercialization of sports, appealing to both emotion and reason, for the well-being of our children’s future and the continuation of our species.


[1] Mayo Clinic Staff. “Exercise: 7 benefits of regular physical activity.” Mayoclinic.org. 1998-2015. Web. June 14 2015.

[2] Willens, Michelle. “The Challenges and Rewards of Male-on-Male Friendship.” Theatlantic.com. January 17 2013. Web. June 14 2015.

[3] See Mark Golden’s “Sport and Society in Ancient Greece” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 24.

[4] See Richard G. Spies’ “War, Sports and Aggression: An Empirical Test of Two Rival Theories.” American Anthropologist Vol. 75, Issue 1 (1973), pp. 64–86.

[5] Schultz, Dylan. “Immoral behavior among athletes rising.” Chsglobe.com. January 27 2010. Web. June 14 2015.

[6] Moore, Louis. “In college sports, amateurism fosters rape culture.” Detroitnews.com. October 18 2014. Web. June 14 2015.

[7] Stark, Steven. “Drill and Kill: How Americans Link War and Sports.” Theatlantic.com. September 30 2010. Web. June 14 2015.

[8] Crary, David (The Associated Press). “Ralph Nader to sports fans rescue? Just watch, dog.” Insidesocal.com. December 16 2011. Web. June 14 2015.

[9] Nader, Ralph. “New Sports Exposé.” Counterpunch.org. February 26 2015. Web. June 14 2015.

[10] Reed, Len. How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan (Lanham; Boulder; New York; London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 220 pages.

[11] Heffernan, Kayla. “Too expensive to be a fan.” Hartfordinformer.com. February 19 2015. Web. June 14 2015.

[12] Cohen, Jackie. “America’s culture of entertainment.” Marketwatch.com. January 11 2015. Web. June 14 2015.

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