We have reached the time of year when we face crises galore, when many people become passionate about trivial events, when one’s emotions are strained, where hard feelings are generated and superiority is established, when detailed analysis of events dominates much of the public discussion and arguments—even fisticuffs—are motivated by events that in reality have only passing impact on our daily lives.
It’s World Series time in baseball. College football fans are starting to evaluate the value of life on the basis of bowl eligibility. Pro football fans bemoan the one misplay that dooms the home team or keeps a Super Bowl dream alive. Pro basketball and hockey fans already are agonizing over or exulting about the puck or the ball that barely missed the net—or got into it at the last second. College basketball fans soon will cheer the home team in its quest for the post-season or demonstrate their hate for a traditional rival. In fact, Missouri has (be still my beating heart!) played Kansas in a basketball game!
This is the time of year when games don’t end when the clock or the innings or the quarters run out. It’s a time when we forget these are only games that have their most meaning during the time they are played. The world will not be more peaceful and safe because they were played. Homeless people will still live in boxes or in doorways. Children will still starve and die in desperate circumstances.
We were reminded of those sentiments recently when we re-discovered one of our favorite sports books that puts all of this in perspective. It’s Heywood Hale Broun’s Tumultuous Merriment, which came out in 1979, a memoir of the decade he spent as a “color commentator” for CBS Sports. A better word probably is “essayist.” He was, in our memory, the sports counterpart to Charles Kuralt, the other CBS correspondent on the road. He was the fellow with the great moustache and the colorful sport coat who always saw sports with more perceptive eyes that did not focus on the final outcome.
Broun began his book with a definition of “sport” from Samuel Johnson’s eighteen-century dictionary: Play; diversion; games; frolick and tumultuous merriment and then asks, “Who now, save an occasional small child, regards sport as diversion or as tumultuous merriment? How much frolick is there in the Ohio State-Michigan game, the modern Olympics, the Little League championship of a crossroads country town?”
He says it is “somber tosh” to explain play as a way to serve wish-fulfillment, or a way to work off hostility, or a way to burn off excess energy, or something that “builds character, creates a healthy moral climate, builds bonds of fellowship, and gives a chance to earn big money with the pros.”
Coaches, he wrote, dare not admit they are just teaching a diversion. To avoid being paid like English professors, they must “pose as saviors of youth, muscular alchemists who can take the base metal of bad boys and produce golden lads, saints who can block and shoot baskets.”
“It is to our discredit that we swallow all this stuff,” he wrote. And he had no patience with those who cited the Duke of Wellington’s contention that the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton. Better, he argued, to remember what the Duke said as he watched troops whose preparation for war had consisted of playing rugby and cricket: “I don’t know if they frighten Napoleon, but by God, they frighten me!”
Broun charges our games “ruthlessly” root fun out of our games “lest it soften our fiber.” But he says fun need not disappear as the stakes increase and tension grows. After all, he says, our games are not open heart surgery—where there is real tension and the stakes are really high.
“We are only grotesque when we apply the standards suitable to the gladiator to our Little League children,” he wrote. “It is unfair to make them the surrogates of our flab-shackled daydreams.”
He did not begrudge the high salaries paid to the professionals by the corporations that own their teams but he finds the talk of money turns the athlete and his agent into dullards and he wonders why he even cares whether they win or lose. Broun said he could get the same kind of behavior at a sales convention.
“After all, one game is not really more important than another in the cosmic scheme of things,” he wrote. “But it’s wonderful fun to pretend and we all have expended a lot of pretense on the Super Bowls, the World Series, the Triple Crown and football games like Yale-Harvard, Oho State-Michigan, or Texas-Oklahoma.”
Broun notes that “small children, more than their elders, demand a structure of immutable rules in their games” regardless of where the games are played. The rules are made up to fit the circumstances, but the rules must be followed. And that, he says, is why we are fascinated by games. “They are the only activities of life where the rules are, metaphorically or actually, written on the top of the box.” Life, on the other hand, is a place where the rules quickly can change for a participant, which is why we find relief to “escape into the small, known, well-defined structure of a game.”
“We agree, for the time we play it at least, to its importance, and everything else is lost in the shadows behind the sidelines,” he wrote. Cheating only thrusts the participant back into the uncertainty of the real world. “If winning is overwhelmingly important, and is the only reason for playing, we must break the ‘rule’ if no one is looking, or bend it if someone is.”
Broun discovered a game that he thought represented the purity that “sport” in its truest form should be while covering a story at the D. D. Palmer College of Chiropracty in Davenport, Iowa: Rugby. Perhaps, he reasoned, the game’s lack of the “war game precision” of football that left spectators unable to have strategic discussions about why a team won or lost, and who was responsible, is why rugby has never caught on here. “What rugby does provide,” he wrote, “is an immense amount of pleasure to its players…The air is always filled with fiercely happy cries as the packed scrum into which the ball is dropped dissolves into a thirty-man whirlpool.
“For all the talk of American coaches about team effort, it is possible in sports like football and baseball to put the blame for a loss on an individual, the man who struck out with the bases loaded, dropped a fly ball in the ninth, couldn’t hold a pass, missed a crucial kick. In true team sports like rugby this finger-pointing is a lot more difficult, which is why I found the players at Palmer, scab-nosed to a man, full of good cheer after bashing about on a cold and muddy day.”
He reminds us:
“The actual importance of the contest is immaterial to both spectators and players once the period of magic has begun. The level of excitement is subconsciously chosen by those present and after a time exists beyond their control…All of us should play as if life and honor depended on it, and all of us should cheer as if it were Lucifer State versus Angel U. in the arena; but at game’s end all of us should recognize that paradise was neither won nor lost. None of us should emulate those middle-aged men who stare glumly into the bottom of a highball glass when they think of a shot that failed to drop in the last second of some long-ago basketball game…
“Let it not be said, although I’m afraid it will, that young men are preparing for a stern world where mistakes are not forgotten, and that they should have a stern preparation for that world.
“Sport is a preparation for more sport and not a businessmen’s ROTC…You can’t tackle economics or block logistics.
“Boys and girls, men and women, can all be distorted by the philosophies that use games to grotesque ends…A coach is not a priest. Games are not life. There is no authority save the Rule, which all players have agreed on, and there is no fun like playing a game for the sake of a game.”
Broun died in 2001. He was 83.
We’re not sure if his words are any more useful or meaningful in shaping the world of sport and the public’s attitude toward it today than they were in 1979. Or even whether there is some wisdom in them for the game of politics.
But then again, “There is no authority save the Rule,” and we risk a lot when we decide on or off the playing field that The Rule is expendable.
(Photo credits: paulikreport.com)
Heywood Hale Broun, Tumultuous Merriment, New York, Richard Marek Publishers, 1979