There is love and then there is the all consuming blind passionate and intense form of emotion that almost borders on fanaticism. That is the kind of love that approximately 3.5 billion people across the globe feel for football, 2.5 billion for cricket and some 1 billion for tennis.
Even though more than half the world’s population is in love with sport, however, we still don’t have a clear idea exactly what is it about sport that draws us, engages and even consumes us.
“Sport inspires us, touches the depths of our emotion, lets us believe in the impossible, engages our mind,” say some. Some say it validates their “competitive nature.”
Yet there is something deeper at play. These definitions only catch part of it.
In addition to the generally accepted taxonomic name Homo Sapiens (which means “to think and reason in a complex way”) there are other names for the human species that have been coined to refer to various other aspects of the human character. One such name is “Homo Ludens”. It means “pleasure seeker” and the term was coined by Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga in 1938.
It is this characteristic of the human species, the fact that we are Homo Ludens, that I think makes us love sport so much. It helps us fulfill our need for pleasure.
In his book “Playing Man”, Johan Huizinga defines sports as “a free physical activity standing consciously outside ordinary life as being not serious but at the same time absorbing the players intensely and utterly and it proceeds within its own boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner”.
By its very nature the purpose of sport is to be purposeless, however ironic as it may sound. When you are in play or watching a sport you are in a suspended reality of sorts. You get transported to another world which is far removed from where you come from.
While from a physiological perspective, physical activity and exercise can improve both mental and physical health yet in reality we are drawn to sports because it helps us forget about life for a little while.
A sport is that hero that can distract people from their mundane struggle and problems.
Basketball superstar LeBron James during an interview mentioned how "Sport is one of the biggest healers. It just does something to people. Either if you're a player, you're a fan, you just feel a certain way about rooting for a team that you love. And it can get your mind off some of the hardships that may be going on throughout your life or in that particular time and period. It just does that.”
In that sense sport is not very different from an addiction to any substance or alcohol. We crave it, we even need it.
This may explain why a sportsperson gets withdrawal symptoms when they retire or why a fan alters her/his entire life to fit in the game.
Sport can make people do irrational things, from spending half your annual income on a ticket to waking up at unearthly hours to cheer your team that is competing in a different time zone.
We don’t do it for the team we follow. Truth is, we do this for ourselves because the real play, as Huizinga says, “proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it.”