Most people can’t believe that I was a cheerleader, now considered one of the most dangerous sports for females in high school. As a member of San Bernardino High School’s Junior Varsity Cheer Squad my sophomore year of high school, I loved the creativity and athleticism of the sport and being a part of the team. Yes, I was proud of my ability to expertly perform toe-touching jumps and competitive stunts, as much as motivating the team and student body. The following year I discovered student government and thus ended my brief love affair with sports.
I am reflecting on my own athletic history because several incidents last week had me thinking a lot about sports – which I rarely do – and the people who are passionate about their teams and players – which I never am.
First, I happened to be near a television tuned to the World Cup semifinal match between Brazil and Germany when Germany scored their 4th goal (at that point in the game Brazil had still not scored). The television cameras panned across the faces of the stunned Brazilian fans and landed on a young boy, probably about 9 or 10 years old, who was in the midst of the most uncontrollable crying fit, completely devastated by the realization that his country’s team would need a miracle to win and advance to the finals. Germany annihilated Brazil 7-1 and eventually went on to become the World Cup champions.
A few days later, I heard the news that basketball superstar LeBron James was returning to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. My first question to the resident sports expert at home was, “Aren’t the fans pissed?” I don’t follow sports, but who could avoid all the hype around “King James’s” televised decision in 2010 to leave his hometown team and take his “talents to South Beach” to play for the Miami Heat? Four years ago his announcement angered Cavalier fans so much that many took to publicly burning his jersey. So once the decision was made to return to Cleveland I wondered where the anger had gone. Why were the fans so jubilant? I couldn’t understand why they weren’t making him work harder for their forgiveness.
[pullquote]Puzzled, I asked my husband as well as a few friends why they are passionate about their teams and their favorite sports figures.[/pullquote]
Puzzled, I asked my husband as well as a few friends why they are passionate about their teams and their favorite sports figures. While all gave thoughtful answers, I still didn’t get it. Dissatisfied with my understanding of their responses, I turned to the work of Roland Barthes. “Why Barthes?,” you might ask. Actually you’re probably asking, who in the hell is Roland Barthes? Well, he is one of my favorite philosophers, a French literary critic, theorist, and semiotician whose work explores the “signification” of every day life, culture, and popular rituals.
In Mythologies, one of his collection of essays, he attempts to “read” practically everything around him from high art to advertising, and from drinking wine to watching wrestling. And it is in his essay on wrestling that I have at least started to understand the passion of the sports fan. He reads the activity through the lens of Greek drama and theatre. While he calls true wrestling more spectacle than sport, his writings suggest to me that in sports, fans see in great spectacle the range of human emotion.
Ultimately, for so many fans like the little Brazilian boy who couldn’t control the tears streaming down his face, sports is a narrative of hope, and losing the big game (or the key player like Brazil did in Neymar) is like losing in life.
Athletic theatre is comprised of the archetypal narratives that we are familiar with – from religious stories to the fairy tales we are told as children. T-shirts for sale in Cleveland marking LeBron’s announcement “For6iven…The Kingdom Restored” plays into several biblical narratives, most obviously the return of the Messiah and of course the parable of the Prodigal Son. Or his journey can be read like the universal plots of the Voyage and Return, Quest, or Rebirth narratives that we see throughout literary history and in folktales. Thanks to Barthes I am beginning to understand why fans are so passionate…and so emotional…and so fiercely loyal to their teams. And yes, even so easily forgiving of their repentant and remorseful superstar athletes when they are ready to return “home”.