The Evolutionary Phenomenon That Makes Sport so Thrilling

“Zoom in, and then tell me ‘it’s just a game’”

@CAFC_SF88

The above picture is the moment that Charlton Athletic—a English football team based in South-East London—scored the last-minute winning goal that would promote them to the higher Championship division, the culmination of a season’s efforts to climb the ranks of the country’s football leagues.

Observe the faces of each and every supporter in the photo, and you can understand the immense impact that sports can have on people’s lives—the sheer, unalloyed joy that comes bursting forth as their team secures a victory that will enhance their position. There’s nothing contrived about this photo, just a plethora of faces—fresh-faced, wrinkled, spectacled, moustached, male, and female—brought together by a team whose actions have rocketed them into the heights of a collective ecstasy. Non-sports fans might be surprised by the emotional intensity—how can something so seemingly trivial as sport create such unbridled fervor? Isn’t it just a game?

Tribalism is the phenomenon responsible for a sport fan’s extraordinary emotional reactions—the flawless rapture that they feel as their team smashes the clincher into the back of the net. In our evolutionary past, tribalism improved our chances of survival by consolidating us into groups, who we trusted, favoured, and depended on. Our tribe became an extension of ourselves, every loss and victory. When a fellow tribesman returned from a successful hunt with a delicious deer tied to the back of his horse, his achievement was our achievement, and was celebrated as such. Similarly, when Charlton’s Patrick Bauer poked the ball past the goal line in the last minute of the play-off final, even though he was the only person responsible for the act, every single Charlton fan in the stadium claimed the victory as their own, with a roar that echoed throughout the country. When we support a football team, we’re no longer a lonely, vulnerable person desperately trying to survive, but a soldier in a formidable army, protecting each other with fierce loyalty, and marching as one. When the club makes a questionable decision—the hiring of an unproven manager; the precarious signing of an expensive player, or a new unethical owner who cares little for the team’s future—the supporters sense the danger as if it were their own; a direct threat to themselves that must be staved off. The fact that the supporters have absolutely no sway over the club’s major decisions makes no difference. It’s our tribe, we’re fully invested, and it must be protected at all costs. The sense of belonging that comes with following a football club is felt in the very marrow of our bones, and we’ll never turn our back on them. After being a supporter of a team for a prolonged period, to change teams is tantamount to treason; the offender an untrustworthy turncoat. We love our tribe and we’ll support them through thick and thin, no matter how embarrassing the performances.

The intense devotion that tribalism can create has obvious downsides, evidenced by the rise of British football hooliganism, when unquestionable loyalty leads to extreme violence. Football fans are taught that it’s good and proper to hate a rival team, just because they’re a rival team—an idiotic obligation in which all sense of logic is thrown out the window. Rival supporters are transformed into dark and deadly enemies, their basic humanity forgotten, and their pummelling justified. Our tribe is the epitome of everything good and true, theirs all that is wrong and false. Clear parallels can be drawn with nationalism and religion, where unbridled tribalism has the potential to create profound hatred. Though tribalism makes sports endlessly thrilling, evoking fervent emotion in its most dramatic moments, diligent caution is required to prevent us from slipping into illogical idiocy, in which other people can become objects of hate, guilty of nothing more than belonging to a different tribe than ours. The competitive nature of sports can warp games into mock battles, and though this is part of what makes them so exciting, the boundary between friendly competition and violent battle can become difficult to distinguish, especially when being swept along by an impassioned, five-hundred strong mob that screams for the blood of the opposition. Conformism for the sake of conformism is foolishly irrational, and in the realm of football, can quickly lead to hateful violence.

At their core, sports are just games, but our tribalistic nature imbues them with extraordinary passion, with the power to create joyful angels, or odious demons of us. A single kick can dispatch us into giddying euphoria, illustrated in each and every face in the photo above, or heart-wrenching despondency, dreams crushed into oblivion, until next season. It’s a rollercoaster ride of intense emotion, the highs non-existent without the lows; the sky-punching jubilance of victory nothing without the sharp sting of defeat. Tribalism is what makes sports so thrilling to experience, and as your club’s defender lurches forward and pokes the ball in the back of the net in the final minute of a game, sending your team soaring into the higher division, a temporary insanity takes over each and every supporter, flooded with fanatical, turbulent emotion. 

The team’s victory is your victory, and it feels indescribably fantastic.

Kill Them With Kindness—an Antidote to Hate

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The world is full of horrible people—kill them with kindness. Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Most people are repulsed by maliciousness. Being unkind to another human being is unnecessary, and so we want the ghastly offender away from us, preferably in shark-infested waters. There’s something about nastiness that makes our skin crawl; it’s worthless, and the culprit is clearly capable of personally targeting us too. Acting in a cruel way isn’t the best method for making friends either, unless the friends you want to make are equally as cunty, in which case you’re perfect for each other.

In a world where a disgusting, offensive narcissist sits atop the American empire, it’s more important than ever to be kind. Trump has become a global news sensation, his supporters delight in every one of his ludicrous words, despite their nastiness. Perhaps because of their nastiness. Sexual assault victim Christine Blake Ford is a “horseface,” Mexicans are rapists, and Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband. If one of the most powerful men in the world speaks confidently in this way without batting an eyelid, what kind of message does that send to his followers? Gradually, being vile and obnoxious becomes acceptable. But every extreme situation can be countered with something equally intense from its opponents, and in this case, the counterpunch is to kill them with kindness; to be relentlessly and unequivocally courteous to everyone that we meet, regardless of whether they’re showing you the same gratitude. Love conquers hate—the Indian Independence and American Civil Rights movements proved this in the most sublime way imaginable. They decided that love and kindness, not hate and hostility, was the only way to correct their dire situation, with unprecedented success. They decided to kill them with kindness, and it worked wonderfully, producing two of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful victories ever witnessed.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.”

Mahatma Gandhi

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Being unkind can be dangerously insidious, particularly when dealing with situations in which the other person is displaying incompetence. Scolding them is effortless and often depressingly efficient. The result is that you’ve probably ruined their day. But hey, you got what you wanted. It can be difficult to keep cool in such situations, especially when you feel that your precious time is being wasted, but to kill them with kindness isn’t easy. There’s often a choice to make: efficient reproach, or less effective, patient kindness. By choosing the latter, it might take you longer to fulfill your objectives, but you’ve made the world a slightly better place in the process. Life can be a gruelling slog, and everyone is just trying their best to drag themselves through it, day by day. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re the only person struggling.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”

Plato

Unkind people are to be pitied, as their behaviour is often a result of their gloomy opinion of themselves. If you hate the world, there’s a good chance that you hate yourself too. A vicious stream of bilious words isn’t going to improve your deflated self-esteem; it just make things worse. It’s a motivation fueled by insecurity—by being malicious to another person, you’re attempting to position yourself above them in order to feel better about yourself. It’s a pathetic illusion of grandeur, and can be shattered by acting as a dogged exemplar of kindness, regardless of whether you get sniggered at.

“How people treat other people is a direct reflection of how they feel about themselves.”

Paul Coelho

Kindness, by contrast, is inextricably linked to happiness. Japanese researchers found that happy people are kinder than unhappy people, and that one’s sense of happiness rises when considering your acts of kindness. Being gracious releases neurochemicals that suffuse us with “helper’s high”, the very same circuits activated from recreational drugs such as MDMA or cocaine.  It can also reduce your pain levels, and enhances both your physical and mental health. Being kind is incredibly good for you, and the most beautiful thing about it is that it doesn’t cost you anything at all. The investment that you make by putting a heartwarming smile onto someone’s face is returned back to you with interest. A single modest act of kindness can result in a huge chain of positive effects; it’s contagious, and spreads like angelic wildfire.

Treat others how you want to be treated, and kill them with kindness.