“Look at those magical phantoms which so enchantingly, so capriciously, so vastly, and so boundlessly, are conjured up before his mind’s eye in so magical and thrilling a picture, a picture in which, needless to say, he himself, our dreamer, in his own precious person, occupies the most prominent place!”
—White Nights, Fyodor Dostoevsky
We humans watch sports for a number of reasons. There is the uncertainty and intensity of competition. There is the display of physical ability and of thinking in action. There is the buzz of partisan belief. There is the draw of expecting fairness, of seeing the same rules applied to all comers. And there must be many more reasons.
I don’t know why or if Dostoevsky enjoyed watching sports. Wikipedia is hazy on the subject; and I am not going to read his biography just to be able to tell you. But whether or not sports were allowed in 19th century Russia, I am certain Dostoevsky would have gotten a powerful charge out of them, which brings me to my point. I watch sports for all the reasons anyone does, but what nourishes me perhaps to an unhealthy degree is the imaginative sensation of being the players (and maybe even the stadium and the ball). Taking in sports pulls me from a position of observation to one of participation. I am no longer oozing beer-sweat on the couch. I am on glorious display before rapt and adoring millions.
Look! There he is. Harry Kane on the ball; calm as you like on the right side as Crystal Palace scrambles to defend. Kane lofts a high, arcing delivery to the opposite corner of the penalty area. Christian Eriksen dips his head to meet the descending cross, deftly nodding the ball back upfield and onto Dele Alli’s receiving foot. The ball pooches up into the air, caressed into suspended control, and the crowd senses the unveiling of a pristine moment. A defender, lured forward by the ball’s seeming availability, charges headfirst to break up the play. But raising my right cleat, I pop up the sphere once more, over my own head and back toward the goal, leaving the defender to run through empty space. I turn in quick, measured steps and then scythe my right leg in perfect time—without hesitation, and with full force—meeting the ball an instant before the termination of its projectile motion. The ball careens past the shoulder of a wincing defender and scoots hungrily into the back of the net. The game is tied no more. The crowd has lost its mind. The commentators search for words. And my teammates dance around me. I dance around me. I am “the sensation.” I am the home fanbase. I am the spectator not cheering but only smiling in bemused awe at such a demonstration of cheek and skill. I shake beneath the stomping feet of a capacity crowd. I am the glory of sport.
When my wife read that last paragraph, she concluded that I am also a “delusional narcissist.”
The charge would seem just. Dostoevsky’s dreamer imagines himself merely in “the most prominent place” of some desirable situation. He doesn’t see himself as the entirety of the event. He keens for something that is at least possible, whereas I spin off into an all-encompassing fantasy.
It could be I’m saying that watching sports occasions in me an onanistic inflation of ego. Yes, I feel as if I am everywhere in that stadium. I am every good vibration. I am every relevant part of the event, even some of the inanimate ones. (Reminder: I am actually sitting at home, damp on my couch.) But let me train my gaze on one particular aspect of my condition and posit an alternative explanation for why Dele Alli’s foot is my foot.
Simply, I wish it were my foot. His foot has done something incredible, something worth the price of admission. I am having an acute empathic reaction to his foot and the leg to which it is attached; to the mind coordinating the motion of its subordinate limbs; to the personality that has experienced the rare harmony between intention and result. The moment in which all this occurs is positively magnetized, and I am drawn smack into it.
Put it this way: sports provide me with my fix of the big action, the stuff I could never physically bring about in reality. People play video games for the same reason. Oddly enough, I find playing video games far too intense of an activity. Having control over an avatar overwhelms my sense of responsibility. I’m not looking for agency in my entertainment. I’m looking to mirror the choicest emotions. And one really needs to be choosy; it is not advisable to internalize everything that happens on the field. Compound fractures anyone? Severe ligament failure? When Willis McGahee’s leg went in the wrong direction in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, I panicked and ran out of the house. They found me three hours later muttering to myself in a neighbor’s backyard. But I guess the succor of victory is sweet enough for me to run the risk and watch and be again.
Of all the reasons to turn on the television, belly up to the bar, or spring for some tickets, I thrill for the vicarious.