The Offer of Hopeful Escape

Sport has the ability to pull people into a hopeful escape from the real world. Rather than dealing with the struggles of day-to-day life, people are able to engage in sport in a way that shuts out everything else. That sport, for the time being, is all that matters, all that counts. When the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in 2009, four years after the devastating Hurricane Katrina and through the following years of trauma and hardship, the city felt a certain pride, union, and bond across classes, cultures, and politics which few other phenomena could provide. For the people of New Orleans, the Saints’ win provided something to give them hope and optimism. To these fans, sport was able to provide, at least for at time, a counter-narrative to the four years of undeniable hardship they experienced since Hurricane Katrina, and the countless years prior and since that the city has endured other societal struggles. In this macro-scale case, sport provided an escape from the tragic terms of reality that many experienced. It was a moment to celebrate in times of pervasive trouble. Though this situation is largely talking about a fan base rather than those actually doing the sport, the football game meant something to them. I think the meaning which people get from instances like this is linked to the reason people engage with sport at the local, non-or semi-organized levels.

Benefits On All Levels

The people I mean are the basketball players playing pick-up ball under a city bridge or at the gym, kids playing soccer in the street using a telephone pole and a fire hydrant to outline goals, and snowboarders trying to master new tricks at the local snow park. These athletes engage in sports, at least in part, for a similar reason as this ‘hopeful escape’ from ordinary life into a life of its own within a sport. They are attempting to better themselves in unique goals, and can take pride in their own personal development and hope for progress in their sport. Of course, there are many reasons to engage in sport. It is great for exercise, adrenaline, and other physical wants. Also, playing a sport creates a bond with those you play with and provides excitement in conquering goals and performing better. However, I am interested in its ability to be a platform to set aside other worries to simply be. This part – an avenue in which people can have tunnel vision to merely focus on the enjoyments of the sport – is part of the appeal for both player and fan, participant and spectator. For those local athletes I mentioned, I see the reasons to play as often more pure, more directly tied to sport than professionals, who often use sport as a means to an end. This isn’t to say that elite athletes never have a love for the game. Indeed, many have the largest love of the game, as it is what drove them to be elite. I merely mean to say that for those who gain nothing material by playing, it must be simply a joy or passion for the game as a reason to engage. This is not unique to sports; other pursuits offer similar benefits: writing poems, playing an instrument, studying chemistry, or learning to craft meals are all able to bring a person into their own world with that element. These other passions also deliver similar bonds with fellow participants, the ability to work toward and achieve goals, and other benefits associated with sport. If it is some type of hopeful escape which in part drives this passion for these people, is there something special about sport in how this is delivered?

Why Sport?

I believe a large part of the difference for sports is their rigidity and structure. While there are elements of flair, style, and innovation, it is within each sport’s framework or rules which sets sport as a whole apart from other more fluid passions, in terms of how they allow us to retreat into a hopeful escape from reality. Sports create rigid limitations on how we are able to compete, and we want to thrive within those given restraints. We must adhere to the rules; otherwise we are no longer playing that sport. The chance to engage and live within created borders which apply to everyone – though some have clear advantages in skill, physical ability, etc. – appeals to us. We engage in sports in order to check out of everyday life for the time being in order to try to succeed within a rigid framework. Whereas other passions often have fluid boundaries, interpretations, and standards, sports offer a structured world to dive into. Think of the New Orleans example. The people of New Orleans were extremely proud of the fact that their city came out on top within the world of football. This translated to hope and pride outside of football, but started with the engulfment of people into this escape from the real world. The Saints were the best football team, and this meant something. No matter how bad of shape the city had been in, and no matter any of the other measurable, New Orleans was the best in the framework of football. Sports are ways for people to try to perform well and succeed under limiting guidelines. They place restrictions on all participants, and the pursuit to compete in such conditions provides an escape from everyday troubles. Athletes – as well as fans – enjoy the structured, even, and fair rules under which they can challenge themselves, friends, and other athletes.

The Same Rigidity

These rigid structures of sport are available at even the most basic and non-organized venues. Pick-up basketball has rules, and within those limitations players try to hone their skills and enjoy the development and competition of the sport. Soccer in the streets, even when not using the exact pitch-width and regulation goals, has rules which players embrace and try to thrive under. Snowboarding in a snow park has the restraints and rules of what defines a successful jump, where jumps can be made, and what qualifies as difficult. In some way, the ability to escape the everyday tribulations which bring about varying degrees of pressures, restraints, and troubles into a structured form of competition excites people and brings joy. Obviously sport can be done for many reasons, and this is merely one reason. The point is, however, that sport may be a bit different than many other passions in the way it engulfs participants from the world. It provides a somewhat equal and rigid framework to compete in. I want to be clear to not discount other passions. This is merely a reflection on what it is that sport may offer – and how – which is embraced by so many.

Author: Mitchell Kiefer