The Popularity of Spectator Sports: A Torah View

Ron Artest. Barry Bonds. Todd Bertuzzi. The NHL "on leave." Sports is more than just entertainment and a pleasant distraction. It is even more than big business. It has intertwined itself into the lives of many and elicits the strongest of emotions. Of course, that athletics draws out the most intense of feelings is not new. Yet the magnitude of this effect upon our collective being seems to be increasing with the magnitude of salaries and the objective portrayal of sports' reality. Sports and the fate of one's pet team(s) has become, more and more, an integral part of so many people's lives. How are we to respond?

One of the most significant issues that faces individuals within modern society is how to spend one's leisure time. In the past, the necessity of meeting the basic physical needs of ourselves and our families demanded the vast majority of our time. With the movement to shorter work weeks and work days, people find themselves with a good amount of time for leisure or, in other words, for a use of time that is not necessitated by physical need. Individuals are now faced with a question of how to spend their time. Rabbi Norman Lamm, in "A Jewish Ethic of Leisure" (in his Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought), tackles this question from a Jewish perspective, presenting the classic response that this time should be filled with the study of Torah. Yet, while one's freedom in determining how to spend one's time is limited by the dual obligation of livelihood and Torah study, the original question still exists to some extent. How should we determine our remaining relaxation time?

Spectator sports have become, for many, a chosen alternative for how to spend this time. For some, this alternative is no different than any other entertainment option. Within this perspective, as with all entertainment choices, one who wishes to apply the yardstick of Torah must include, in his/her decision, an ensurance of relevant moral values and a commitment that one not be drawn into the activity so that the time devoted to Torah study or livelihood is curtailed. Yet, spectator sports demands, for most, an emotional commitment, and thus presents its own unique concerns. The intensity of these emotions created the fearful events that occurred just recently in Detroit which resulted in criminal charges being laid against NBA players and fans. And this was somewhat tame in comparison to what has occurred at other sports events throughout the world where even deaths have occurred.

The very success of spectator sports is built upon the reality that it does elicit such feelings, at least to some extent. In 1972, during the famous Summit Series of hockey, schools held assemblies and businesses brought televisions into the workplace in order to allow students and employees to see the last game. And when Canada won that game, there were demonstrators in front of the Soviet embassy in Ottawa declaring: "We're number 1." Somehow the ability to put more pucks in the net was deemed a vindication of everything Canadian. This is the reality of spectator sports -- and while we logically smile at the illogic of this idea, our heart swells with pride whenever we hear O Canada played in celebration of a Canadian gold medal victory in hockey or Hatikvah played in celebration of an Israeli gold medal victory in sailboat racing. Sports not only fills one's time, it fills a fan's being. The question of whether spectator sports is a worthwhile usage of our relaxation time demands an investigation of whether the emotional investiture in this fantastical, extravagant world has value or, at least, is not detrimental.

The simple answer, from a Torah perspective, would be in the negative. The concern that our desire for relaxation may infringe upon our commitment to Torah study or our livelihood increases with the emotional pull of the game. Yet there is even a greater concern that our fragile emotions may become tied to the outcome of what is essentially a meaningless event. Through an extended commitment to a sport, one can lose sight of what is truly important. There are many valid reasons for one to be concerned about being involved in spectator sports and feeding the frenzy that has become associated with it.

There is, though, another perspective. Clearly the concerns that have been voiced must be addressed. One who wishes to be a fan as a method of relaxation must be committed to ensuring that the emotional investiture in this pursuit falls within proper limits. One must be able to identify what is real and truly important and what is, ultimately, fluff and irrelevant. Yet for one who can put spectator sports within a proper perspective, there can be value in this pursuit if one applies the concept of metaphor. Sport, in many ways, can strangely teach us about life. On a basic level, as is mentioned by many, we can learn from sports, even solely from watching, the values of effort, practice, teamwork and commitment. Beyond the basics, though, if we see sport as a metaphor about life, we can see in sport the implementation of many ideas and mark their value and effect.

For years, individuals would challenge me on the precision of the halachic system. Do millimeters and fractions of seconds really count? Should they count? For years, my response was always to turn to the world of science and the precision needed in many experiments in order to achieve the desired result. The reality, however, was that many did not relate to such answers as the precision of the lab was far removed from life. I then turned to baseball as the metaphor of precision and my results changed. George Will in his book "Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball" discusses how a manager, after intensely studying the hitting patterns of a batter, may instruct the shortstop to move over one inch thereby increasing the chances of an out. This example people understood and thereby they learned, by the use of sport as metaphor, to appreciate Halacha's precision. I also gained a whole new perspective on the precision of measurement.

Because sport is real in that the determination of what happens is the direct result of the activities of the players, sport can mirror the movement of life. The negative occurrences associated with sport clearly also portray this and, as such, can also be used as a learning tool -- although such unsatisfactory behavior will often lead the efficiently moral individual away from watching the game. It is, however, in the many positive lessons that one can learn from observing sport, through the critical view of sport as metaphor, that one can fully justify the choice of spectator sports as a way to spend one's relaxation time. Even being drawn into the ensuing emotions, to some extent, can have a positive effect as one feels alive, anticipating victory and dreading defeat. From the safe environment of experiencing victory and defeat without real consequence, one can then extend the challenge this incorporates to the reality of life. Yet one must recognize that this is not just a lip-service response to justify fandom but actually changes the way one will view the game -- perhaps introducing a Torah way of being a fan. Viewing the whole experience as metaphor demands an attention to detail while also maintaining a recognition of sport's inherent lack of significance. There is room for enjoyment in the watching but there is also a recognition of an educational goal. With this perspective, one wants to apply the lessons of the game to life, not use sports as a substitute for life (which is a potential great drawback of spectator sports). In this manner, the pleasure of the relaxation has further value.

I would like to conclude with another example. On Sunday of the same weekend that the fiasco in Detroit occurred, the Toronto Raptors played the San Antonio Spurs. The Raptors were down but then, led by members of their second unit, the Raptors staged an exceptional comeback against this NBA powerhouse. Remarkably, as the fourth quarter continued, the Raptor coach, Sam Mitchell, stayed with the players on the floor rather than making the expected substitution and bringing back, for the final minutes, the team's star players. The Raptors won but, afterwards, many people questioned Sam Mitchell as to why he did not bring back his best players. He answered that when he had played professional basketball, he hated when he and other bench players would bring a team back only to have the starters return to finish the game. He remarked that he felt that those who brought the team back deserved the right to finish. I have thought about this comment greatly, applying various Torah principles and attempting to draw out variant lessons for life. My thoughts went to Moshe Rabbeinu who was not allowed to finish what he started. In experiencing the event through watching the game, I could feel the event, for Sam Mitchell's statement and, thereby, could attempt an understanding beyond that available by just reading about such an event. As a way of spending relaxation time, sport can be very worthwhile. Of course the prime purpose of relaxation time is to rejuvenate oneself so that one's efforts in pursuit of life's real purposes can be intensified. Yet if this time can also add value to this pursuit, it has greater worth. If approached in a correct manner, with spectator sports there is this potential. The metaphor is available for the furtherance of my understanding of life.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht