The Chronicle Review

The Roar of the Crowd

March 20, 2009

Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn't religion, but spectator sports. What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves? The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month's collegiate basketball championship season is not who will win, but why anyone cares.

Not that I would try to stop anyone from root, root, rooting to his or her heart's content. It's just that such things are normally done by pigs, in the mud, or by seedlings, lacking a firm grip on reality — fine for them, but I am not at all sure this is something that human beings should do. In desperation, if threatened with starvation, I suppose that I would root — for dinner. But for the home team? Never.

More than a decade ago, a baseball strike canceled the season and the World Series. The first time ever, we were told in hushed tones. A national trauma. 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 summer without baseball, the pundits pouted? Most portentous, how could we be us without our spectator fix?

But wait. Here is heresy indeed: Was it really such a disaster? Or is it a disaster that our current paragons have been revealed to be hormonally enhanced and ethically challenged? Or if a college team is denied a bowl slot? Is life so pale, dull, and unsatisfying that it must be experienced vicariously in order to be savored? You might try reading a book, talking with your family, going for a walk, wrestling with the dog, listening to some music, smelling a flower, making love.

Let me be clear: It is not the doughty doing of sports that is so ill-conceived, but the woeful watching, the ridiculous rooting, the silly spectating. 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 salience to which Esperanto once unsuccessfully aspired, although the details of spectatorship owe much to local flavoring: Among Canadians, hockey worship is so pervasive that the running joke when the 2005 season was canceled was that sell-out crowds would still show up, just to watch the ice-resurfacing machines go around the empty rinks. In Afghanistan, the rage — except for brief banishment under the Taliban — has long been 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 decapitated corpse of a goat.

I have no quarrel with vigorous participation, pursuing an activity for its own sake, for the exercise, the camaraderie, the joy of simply doing it. That appeal is in fact so strong that the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga seriously proposed 70 years ago that the human species be renamed Homo ludens (man the player).

Maybe there is a primitive, deep-seated wisdom in our penchant for play generally, and for athletics in particular. "We run," according to the first four-minute miler, Roger Bannister, "not because we think it is doing us good but because we cannot help ourselves." But if we run — or jump, throw, catch, kick, or bat — because we cannot help ourselves, do we also watch others do so for the same reason? Are we compulsive voyeurs?

For one thing, we get identification from our sports frenzy, the experience of seeing ourselves in the exploits of another. In his novel A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley depicted the New York Giants' star running back Frank Gifford accomplishing with a football all those things the narrator failed to achieve in love and work: "It was very simple, really. Where I could not, with syntax, give shape to my fantasies, Gifford could, with his superb timing, his great hands, his uncanny faking, give shape to his." Earlier in the novel, the narrator — in a mental hospital — told a friend: "He may be the only fame I'll ever have!"

Maybe it is time to rework Andy Warhol's observation that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes: Thanks to spectator sports, each of us can know fame for most of our lives, so long as we are satisfied with the ever-shifting, warmed-over shadow of someone else's.

Youngsters seem especially prone to that delusion, desperate as they are for heroes, and craving the opportunity to bask in another's glory. And so when children avidly pore over vacuous images and vital statistics, or traipse enthusiastically to the local (or even distant) stadium, it is easy to make allowances. Indeed, there is something touching about such fresh-faced yearning for exemplars, even though the constellations they see may not be notable for the content of their characters, intelligence, compassion, decency, or creativity, but rather for an uncommon and sometimes downright freakish ability to hit, throw, catch, roll, or bounce a ball, to jump high or punch hard, or to bump into other people in such a manner as to knock them down and/or avoid being knocked down themselves. Small wonder everyone ends up disappointed when those luminaries are revealed to be moral dwarfs.

"Say it ain't so, Joe. Say it ain't so," a young child is supposed to have pleaded with Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Chicago White Sox baseball star who helped "throw" the 1919 World Series in return for a payoff from gamblers. But it was so, and none but the most naïve of children and the most ardently deluded of adults should have been surprised. What is remarkable is not that athletes so often fail to be admirable people or to lead exemplary lives off the field, but that anyone would ever expect it to be otherwise.

For every youngster who admires the likes of Einstein, Gandhi, Jonas Salk, or Alice Walker, there are probably tens of thousands who wind up adoring and seeking to emulate Ty Cobb, known as a racist, or drunkards and gluttons like Babe Ruth, compulsive womanizers like Wilt Chamberlain, gamblers like Pete Rose, or steroid abusers like ... (fill in the blank).

Of course, there have been athletes who were admirable, even off the field. On balance, however, the probability is that successful athletes number among themselves more than their share of alcoholics, misogynists, sociopaths, and violence-prone dimwits and miscreants. After all, these are adults paid to play children's games, and there is simply no reason why the ability to do remarkable things with one's body — things that are generally quick and violent — should make someone worth emulating in any other way, and probably good reasons why the opposite is more likely.

Add to the primal passion for identification another natural tendency — the yearning to be part of a group — and the result is a potent brew. Spectator sports offer quick and easy entree into an instant community. Never mind that it is ersatz. It is there for the joining; no need to "make the team." Instead, just buy a ticket, a T-shirt, or turn on the television or radio. The would-be applicant is immediately taken in ... in more ways than one.

It makes sense that an athlete's family and friends (at least some of them) might want to watch him or her compete. But surely not the many thousands who cram into our arenas this month. One possibility is that these observers, neither family nor friends of the athletes, are in some way deceived into imagining themselves family or friends.

The sports audience is complicit in its own deception, downright eager to be thus misled. As to why, let's consider the basic biology of Homo sapiens, as well as some general traits that we appear to share with other living things. Take, for starters, our basic inclination to affiliate into groups. Nothing abnormal here; it is one of the most appropriate human needs. Both developmentally and evolutionarily, it pays human beings to be group-loving, aggregative creatures.

The human fondness for groups begins early; namely, at birth. Each of us enters the world utterly dependent on someone else, most of the time a mother who provides nurturance and, specifically, milk, as with other mammals. As we grow, we expand our circle of connectedness, becoming part of an ever-growing "team" consisting of siblings, other relatives, close friends and associates, and so forth. In all probability, our Pleistocene ancestors affiliated into like subgroups within each tribe, and when it came to encounters between tribes, they made sure, first, that they were members of one tribe or another (to be unaffiliated was, in most cases, to be soon dead), and second, when the choice presented itself, to be part of the bigger — hence, stronger — one.

The issue was survival and reproduction versus failure and extinction, à la Darwin. "The more the merrier," we often tell ourselves, and for good reason: Even though two is company and three a crowd, we have always spent much more time trying to survive and prosper than courting or making love.

For tens of thousands of years during our early evolutionary history, there was safety in numbers, just as there is today for ants, horses, or chimpanzees. A single herring, swimming fearfully in the cold Atlantic, or a lonely wildebeest tramping its solitary way over the African savannah, is vulnerable to a hungry tuna or lion. But that herring or wildebeest can make itself somewhat safer by sidling up close to another herring or wildebeest, if only because a potential predator might choose the neighbor instead. Better yet, get yourself near a pair of herrings or wildebeests, or a dozen, or a hundred. For their part, the other group members aren't feeling "used," since they have been figuring the same way. They positively invite you to join because your presence makes them safer, too. Very likely such evolutionary factors were operating among our ancestors. Groups also provided the opportunity for division of labor, made it easier for prospective mates to meet, and provided for the pooling of material resources (like food) and for sharing precious wisdom (where to find water during those once-in-50-year droughts).

In addition — and this may well have been especially important for early human beings — we doubtless benefited from group size when we became enemies to each other. Even as affiliative grouping undoubtedly contributed to our survival and success, it could well have created its own kind of Frankenstein's monster: other groups. Although considerations of efficiency might have meant that our social units sometimes became oversized, it is easy to imagine how the presence of large, threatening bands of our own species pressured us to seek numbers to find safety.

When group fought group, the likelihood is that the larger one won; if so, individuals preferring a sizable crowd triumphed at the expense of those less socially inclined. To the primitive wisdom of the infant, seeking connection first to the mother and then to other family members and friends, there would accordingly have been added a related tendency: preferring larger groups to smaller ones.

Here we may well detect yet another of our connections to the animal world. Students of animal behavior identify what they call "releasers," signals that induce a seemingly automatic response in another animal. For example, the Nobel-prize winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen described how male stickleback fish, kept in an aquarium, rushed to attack the image of a red truck whenever one drove by his lab window. Male sticklebacks themselves have red breasts, and apparently a patch of red serves to "release" the fishes' aggression. Not only that, but the larger the patch, the more the aggression. So there are exaggerated stimuli in the animal world that evoke exaggerated responses.

Consider the American oystercatcher, a shorebird about the size of a crow, with black back, white belly, and a stunning orange bill and feet. This bird lays eggs that are appropriate to its size; it then incubates them, as behooves most birds. The oystercatcher can also be fooled, however, induced to sit on artificial eggs made of plaster or papier-mâché, so long as the models are painted with the appropriate pattern of blotches that signals "egg" and releases incubation behavior in this species.

Things get especially interesting for our purposes when the oystercatcher is presented with a hugely oversized model egg, as big as a watermelon, but adorned with the correct releasing pattern. Oystercatchers are positively entranced by such a supernormal releaser and contentedly perch upon it in preference to their own eggs. There is something absurd about a small bird, earnestly incubating an "egg" that is perhaps 20 times its body volume, although the preference becomes understandable in terms of the oystercatcher's biologically appropriate inclination to hatch its own eggs. Give the unsuspecting animal an oversized model, and we get an oversized response.

Human beings, fortunately, are not as vulnerable as oystercatchers. We do not dangle helplessly at the end of strings pulled by releasers. On the other hand, we seem to have certain preferences that whisper deep within us. And so women are inclined to exaggerate the redness of their lips, the lushness of their hair, or the size of their breasts, in efforts to enhance their appeal to men, just as men might seek to enhance their apparent height, or the breadth of their shoulders, hoping to evoke a larger-than-ordinary response from women. Could we be similarly susceptible to the blandishments of large groups?

Certainly we can be bamboozled, induced to sit atop our various self-identified groups in an orgy of affiliation that makes the oystercatcher seem downright insightful. But it feels good because as we perch there, we satisfy a deep craving, indulging the illusion of being part of something larger than ourselves and thus nurtured, understood, accepted, enlarged, empowered, gratified, protected.

The observer of spectator sports cannot help but confront the odd underbelly of this passion: the yearning to be someone else, or at least, a very small part of something else, so long as that something else is Something Else, large and imposing, impressive and thus irresistible. That dark desire for deindividuation was felt for millennia by the herring and the wildebeest, and perfected by human beings centuries ago: interestingly, not by sports franchises but by the world's military forces.

To the psychologically naïve, it may seem a peculiar anachronism that military boot camps prescribe close-order drill for young recruits and conscripts. After all, the days of the British square are long gone. But drill sergeants the world around know something important about the impact of repetitive, closely coordinated and choreographed movements, performed in synchrony by large numbers of people. The originating genius of that practice was Maurice of Nassau, a Dutchman living from 1567 to 1625. The historian William H. McNeill once commented on why modern armed forces still use Maurice's techniques, nearly five centuries after he introduced them: "When a group of men move their arm and leg muscles in unison for prolonged periods of time, a primitive and very powerful social bond wells up among them. This probably results from the fact that movement of the big muscles in unison rouses echoes of the most primitive level of sociality known to humankind."

It is no great distance from the mesmerizing impact of close-order drill to the stimulating consequence of shared chanting and cheering, the waving of arms (military or civilian) in unison. The Wave, which many fans say originated in my hometown of Seattle, is a good example. Even though they don't get to swing a bat, throw a pass, or sink a three-pointer, fans have been inventive in providing themselves with ritualized, shared movements that further embellish the allure as well as the illusion of being part of the larger, shared whole, tapping into that primitive satisfaction that moves at almost lightning speed from shared, ritual action to a tempestuous sense of expanded self. One becomes part of a great beckoning, grunting, yet smoothly functioning, and, presumably, security-generating Beast. And for those involved, it apparently feels good to be thus devoured whole and to live in its belly.

In his book The Ghost in the Machine, Arthur Koestler noted that "the glory and the tragedy of the human condition both derive from our powers of self-transcendence." Koestler went on to point out that there was an important difference between primitive identification (fish in a school, birds in a flock) that results in a homogenous, selfless grouping, and the higher level of integration that produces a heterogeneous assemblage whose members retain their individuality. In the first case — which includes the rabid sports fan — there is a surrender of personal identity and responsibility. In the second — that of the reader or theatergoer — the escape from the self is always conditional, transient, and within control.

Sometimes the rapport of identification can be harmless, not uncommonly resulting in giggles, laughter, yawning. Sometimes it is more sinister. As Koestler emphasized, the acts of greatest human violence and destructiveness have arisen not from personal aggressiveness or nastiness, but from self-transcendence in the form of seductive, mindless identification with a group. Think of Rwanda's Hutus and Tutsis, Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, Nazis and Jews, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Israelis and Palestinians.

It is not even necessary to be physically present in the belly of the beastly group in order to be swallowed up by it. As Koestler put it, "One can be a victim of group mentality even in the privacy of one's bath." How about the privacy of one's box seat? Although some studies have shown that players may be a bit less aggressive after a game — probably because they are physically exhausted — fans are not. Thus when spectators were assessed as to their degree of hostility before and after attending various athletic events, the researchers found, if anything, a slight tendency for aggressiveness to be higher after witnessing the spectacle. In that sense, watching sports it is not altogether different from watching other forms of violence. As hooliganism after soccer games repeatedly demonstrates, it can literally evoke violence as well.

Our predisposition for large groups has also given birth to one of the most grotesque happenstances of human history: nationalism. When ardent nationalists convince themselves that a highly arbitrary conglomeration of tens of millions of human beings is somehow biologically or socially "real" and deeply consequential enough to give up their lives and shed the blood of those associated with other nations — you can bet that something deep in the human psyche is being touched. Sports fans may simply be the comic sidekicks of nationalists.

Come and sit here, they are told. And eagerly, they do. They think it is a seat in a stadium, or by their television set, but really they are incubating an oversized egg.

Dazzled by the prospect of being part of a group, fans eagerly wear the group's insignia or team colors. They get to "know" the team members, "up close and personal," as sports journalists like to boast, inducing many spectators to believe that they are personally important to "their" team's success. In Japan, where baseball is the national passion as well as pastime, the illusion is carried even further: Thousands show up at every game fully dressed in their team's uniform, as though just waiting to be called to the plate. In America there is always the occasional scramble to get a ball hit into the stands, although in reality the only real "participation" permitted major-league baseball fans is standing up for the national anthem and then the seventh-inning stretch. (Not that the latter should be disparaged; for many avid fans, after all, it is closest thing to exercise they are likely to get.)

"We're No. 1!" chant the crowds. "We have them now, only two innings to go." "If we can only hold on for another quarter." As Tonto pointedly asked the Lone Ranger in the old joke: "What you mean 'we,' white man?"

By we, the fan means the whole deliciously desirable, immensely seductive group. He means that he is no longer just little old himself, but something larger, grander, more impressive, more important, and thus, more appealing. Sports fans, in this view, are nationalists writ small. Or oystercatchers writ human, which is to say, moved by inclinations less distinct and less automatic than the rigidly stereotyped response to releasers and the obedient superresponse to supernormal releasers that are found among many animals, but inclined to some sort of response nonetheless. There is nothing unusual about it, although even now, I must admit, the whole business perplexes me.

But an oystercatcher would understand perfectly.

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book, How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories, written with Judith Eve Lipton, is forthcoming in April from Columbia University Press. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 31, Page B8