The Unspoken Truths of Recreational Sport
Losing by a score of 8-2 with just over 54 seconds remaining in the third period, players on both benches were busy gathering water bottles and back-up sticks as I lined up for the game’s final face-off in the offensive end.
The puck squirted free into the corner, and I could feel the presence of the opposing center on my left. He was gaining quickly, but I decided to dig in, hoping for one more tally in the name of pride. There was still plenty of time to throw a quick pass to the blue line before going hard to the net in search of a rebound or deflection.
As we clamored for the loose puck, our feet became tangled. He hit the ice with a soft clunk and the sound of equipment grinding against ice dissipated into background noise as I pulled away from the crowd. Then, just as I arrived at the puck, I caught the reflected image of an airborne hockey stick in the glass over my left shoulder. Before I had time to realize what was happening, the two-handed tomahawk chop came down with a wallop against my right ankle.
A grown man, in the presence of 20 other grown men...in an otherwise abandoned arena...at 10pm on a Monday...in a regular season, beer-league game...which his team was winning by six goals with under a minute to play...had just tripped over his own two feet and decided that the most appropriate response would be to break my ankle.
As I rose slowly to my feet, a scuffle ensued. I said something nasty about his mother (or was it his wife?) and the referees decided that playing the last 30 seconds wasn’t worth the 11 bucks they were being paid to be there. They called the game and everybody went home angry.
Other than a bruised calf, there was no damage done on the play...but I couldn’t help but wonder:
What is it about playing a sport that makes some people think they have the right to lose their damn minds?
I mean, if a guy gets cut off in traffic, there aren’t many who would get out of the car to take a full-on baseball swing at another human being with a five-foot stick made of carbon graphite...
Because that would be crazy.
Yet, I hadn’t endangered this guy’s family. I hadn’t even dinged his bumper and left him with a repair bill. I was the winner of an insignificant foot race at the tail-end of a meaningless game, the outcome of which had already been decided. And this jackass figured it was the appropriate moment to unleash his inner Bruce Banner all over my Achilles tendon.
In a 2003 article by Tim Delaney, professor of sport sociology and social theory, he described sport as a microcosm of society. The experience of winning in sport mirrors the experience of success in life, with similar boundaries, competitors and laws governing participation. Just like in real life, you experience success and failure, teamwork and individual responsibilities, good breaks and bad bounces, and occasionally, you simply run out of time.
Thus, the reward of asserting dominance on-ice (or on-field, on-court, etc...) can sometimes fill a void left by the lack of success in a person’s “real” life.
As human beings, we are hard-wired to operate within certain social parameters. Throughout our evolution, the ability to distinguish between “us” and “them” has aided our ability to survive. It’s the reason people continuously sub-divide themselves; PC vs. Mac, Republican vs. Democrat, Budweiser vs. Coors, Packers vs. Bears...
We attempt to define who we are by establishing what we are not.
Once the line has been established, displays of dominance and aggression towards other groups essentially scratch a primordial itch to justify our own ambitions. If it’s a matter of “we” versus “they,” then obviously “we” are the ones who deserve the spoils.
But we do not live in primordial times. In the modern world, acts of violence and aggression are deterred by the threat of incarceration or other forms of punishment.
So we compensate; by revving the engines of expensive cars, by purchasing houses well beyond our physical needs, and by wearing 9 lbs. of titanium and diamonds around our wrists when a plastic Timex would do the same job for 1% of the price.
It’s all about displaying dominance.
Now, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is something deeply unsatisfying about the lack of violence involved with these things. Having nice things is certainly proof of ability, but buried somewhere deep inside of every man is the need to stand over a defeated opponent, roaring out his dominance and thumping his chest like an angry gorilla.
Displaying dominance is nice, but asserting it is a different beast altogether.
Which brings me back to our beer league hero. Sport, it appears, is the last sanctuary of pure masculinity in our society; a place where the harshest penalty imaginable is the game ejection...that is, a forcible return to the real world.
With the amount of time left on the clock when the incident occurred, this particular angry gorilla had very little to lose. He was ejected from the game, but the referee didn’t even bother marking the penalty correctly on the score sheet. Technically, the ejection was given to the player with my jersey number on the opposing team (a player who, for the record, does not exist).
In the real world, the appropriate response would be to contact the proper authorities and let the system take care of the consequences. After reading all of this, you may think I would be inclined to do just that, to use my understanding of the situation to rise above the childishness of physical conflict.
But you would be wrong.
Sport is not about rising above conflict, it is about digging deep into it and engaging an enemy. It is about defending yourself and your teammates while working towards a common goal. It is about reverting to the most base of desires and simply overwhelming an opponent with sheer force.
That’s the beauty of sport; it is about scratching that itch.
So no, I won’t be writing to the league in order to correct the score sheet and ensure that the player’s mandatory suspension is upheld. And I will certainly not be forgetting the incident and moving along with my season.
Instead, I will simply take note of his jersey number and the next time I catch him with his head down, I will unleash the fury of thousands upon thousands of years of pent-up evolutionary aggression all over his sorry ass.
Because that’s what sports are for. The only difference is that I will understand why it feels so damn good to do so.
And if sport is truly capable of playing the role it should play in society...maybe we’ll grab a beer after the game and laugh the whole thing off. I have a feeling he might be the kind of guy who would appreciate the new watch I just bought.