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Are Sports an Escape from Death Anxiety?

Posted on 22 February 2016, 10:18

Humankind cannot bear very much reality.
        – T. S. Eliot

A large photo on the front sports page of The Honolulu Star Advertiser before last month’s Pro Bowl in Honolulu showed two military men obtaining the autograph of a football player.  It is a scene I have witnessed a number of times over the years, one that always leaves me pondering on the seemingly insane paradox of it all.  In effect, the real-life combatants are paying homage to the pretend combatants.  The unreal has become the real.


To fully appreciate the situation, one has to keep in mind that sport, or athletics, developed in ancient Greece as practice for war.  Pioneering psychologist William James saw nineteenth century sports as a way to develop “the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings.”  The bottom line is that athletes are just playing war.  And Society has decided that those who play war are to be revered and rewarded much more than those who really engage in it. Isn’t it strange that a football player falling on a fumbled ball, leading to a touchdown, will be heroically celebrated much more than a soldier who throws himself on a hand grenade to save his fellow combatants? Of course, it’s like that in other aspects of life as well when we consider that a movie actor is paid millions of dollars to act like an ordinary person – a person who might not make as much money in a lifetime as the actor made for pretending to be him or her in that one movie. How absurd it all seems!  Our model for military heroism is John Wayne, an actor who pretended to be a soldier in a number of movies but never served a day in the military. Again, it is the unreal becoming the real.

Before the kickoff of the recent Super Bowl, military men and women – the real warriors – were on the field playing musical instruments, looking anything but warrior-like, while seemingly setting the stage for the pretend warriors to enter the arena and display valor, courage, daring, and perseverance, all those qualities so valued on the real battlefield.  All the while, the real warriors continued to pursue the pretend warriors for autographs and selfies whenever the opportunity presented itself. 

I admit to having been a sports fan for most of my life, since at least age 10, when I adopted the Brooklyn Dodgers as my team and Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese, and Duke Snider as my heroes.  In football, it was Johnny Lujack, Emil Sitko, and Leon Hart of Notre Dame I looked up to most.  I was so avid a Dodgers fan that when they lost a game I would feel depressed the rest of the day.  When they won, my “spirits” soared. 

My fanaticism gradually waned with age, but I still enjoy watching a good game, even though I abhor showboating by athletes, especially end zone dances. I understand a person having a passion for sports, but there is a point at which passion turns to mindlessness and madness, when so many people are affected that our culture and way of life seem threatened with destruction. 

In his book, The Joy of Sports, Michael Novak states that “the underlying metaphysics of sports entails overcoming the fear of death.” He points out that defeat hurts like death.  On the other hand, “to win an athletic contest is to feel as though the gods are one’s side, as though one is Fate’s darling, as if the powers of being course through one’s veins and radiate from one’s action – powers stronger than nonbeing, powers over ill fortune, powers over death.” 

As George Leonard analyzes it in his classic book, The Ultimate Athlete, risk taking and dying are at the very core of sports.  The athlete pushes himself (or herself) to a boundary he cannot cross. “We need no roundabout theories to explain the fascination of death and the salutary effects of calculated risk,” he writes. “We simply must remember that, from the standpoint of embodied consciousness, death provides us our clearest connection with the eternal.”  Leonard adds that in approaching the ultimate boundary, death, we undergo preparation for a larger transformation.  Socrates called it “practicing death.”  Almost always at an unconscious level, it is learning as much about death now so as to facilitate the transition in the future. It is a paradox in itself – both embracing death and avoiding it. 

I “practiced death” for many years in the sport of middle- and long-distance running (see below), although I didn’t fully grasp at the time that the finish line represented death.  To borrow from Sir Roger Bannister, I recall the finish line looming ahead like “a haven of peace after the struggle.”  As Bannister saw it, the greatest part was yet to come – liberation!  “No words could be invented for such supreme happiness, eclipsing all other feelings,” he recalled breaking the four-minute mile barrier, adding that he felt bewildered and overpowered.

“To run, to fall, to merge, to die: such passionate language makes us uncomfortable,” Leonard states. “We are embarrassed by that which stands at the very heart of the Game of Games.  We seek comfort in forgetfulness. We shrink from the inevitability of death.”
If cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker were still alive, I suspect he would view the recent Super Bowl as one gigantic escape from death anxiety.  In his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Becker asserted that death is the mainspring of human activity. “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else,” he offered, going on to explain that to free oneself of death anxiety almost everyone chooses the path of repression.  That is, we bury the anxiety deep in the subconscious and go about our everyday activities mostly oblivious to the fact that in the great scheme of things those activities are exceedingly short term and for the most part meaningless.  Borrowing from the existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, Becker said that man, in his flight from death, becomes a “Philistine.”  For Kierkegaard, Phistinism was man tranquilizing himself with the trivial.  It is man striving to be one with his toys and his games. Many people, Kierkegaard opined, are so tranquilized in the mundane or the trivial that they lack the awareness that they are in despair. 

“Sport is death-free play, and games shut out death,” writes humanist philosopher Alan Harrington in his book, The Immortalist. “We have the commonly recognized but still quite amazing circumstance that for masses of people around the world the outcome of football, baseball, soccer, basketball and boxing matches can sometimes be far more important than actual wars and revolutions.”  As Harrington saw it, the madness of the spectators and the dedication of the players can best be understood by viewing the games as man-made immortality rites.  “The stadium turns into a pit of the gods in which heroes fight to become divine,” he explains. “And trailing behind them come the legions – all of us fans and spectators – who derive our being, our excellence, and our own worthiness to be converted into gods from the performance of our heroic representatives.”

It is one thing for an athlete to unconsciously “practice death” in a particular arena, but quite something else for those not participating in the game to vicariously join in the death-embracing or death-avoiding activity, however it is interpreted. Based on the fanaticism, mindlessness, and madness we witness with such gala events as the Super Bowl, it does seem that the masses have been brainwashed by the media into thinking the game is really important.  We might call it a “flight from reality,” one apparently brought about by television, consumerism, the isolation of modern living, and the trend toward nihilism.  The Super Bowl might be seen as an excuse for people to congregate and share in the despair and insecurity they feel in their everyday lives, though many of them might not realize, as Kierkegaard suggested, that they are in despair.  It is an escape from death anxiety.  There is strength in numbers and the spectators feel something of a “oneness” as they worship the players, their new gods, and root for one of the teams to emerge victorious, thereby somehow cheating death.  If victory is achieved, they live on, but if defeat is the outcome, the mindset seems to be: let’s all get drunk, hold hands, and march into the abyss of nothingness, the pit of extinction, together.

“Celebrity culture is, at its core, the denial of death,” writes Chris Hedges, another Pulitzer Prize winner, in his book Empire of Illusion.  He goes on to say that religious beliefs and practices are commonly transferred to the adoration of celebrities and that a certain emptiness follows. Hedges devotes several pages to the appeal of professional wrestling, but the same might be said of professional football.  “These ritualized battles give those packed in the arenas a temporary, heady release from mundane lives.  The burden of real problems is transformed into fodder for a high-energy pantomime…. For most, it is only in the illusion of the ring that they are able to rise above their small stations in life and engage in a heroic battle to fight back.”

I like the way David Awbrey expresses it in his book, Finding Hope in the Age of Melancholy: “The culture no longer inspires society, and the bonds of shared experience that once held people together are reduced to TV, pro sports, and plotless but visually spectacular computer enhanced movies.  Unless Americans regain a broad purpose in life, they will remain secluded within their corporate cubicles, sending binary bytes into a cybernetic mist, or sequestered in their living rooms, watching moronic sitcoms in the dark.”  And, I might add, real combatants will continue to pay homage to pretend combatants.

Broad purpose in life?  Can there be any purpose other than seeing this life as preparation for a much larger life? 

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.

Next blog post:  March 7


Les and Rex,

I fully agree with both of you.  Celebrity worship, whether sports idols or entertainers, is just a symptom of a much larger problem, that being the failure by most people to find any meaning in life.  After we reach a certain level of comfort in this life and continue well beyond the point of diminishing returns in terms of creature comforts and conveniences, we begin to wonder what else we can strive for. As Kierkegaard said, most people are in despair, even though they don’t realize it.  They search for some meaning to their lives, but they don’t know where to go, because orthodox religion has led them astray, and   that’s where we are now. It is a sad state of affairs.

Michael Tymn, Fri 26 Feb, 07:27

It is insane!!
Excellent article.

Yvonne Limoges, Thu 25 Feb, 01:06

While it is tempting to equate the continual decline in religious adherence with the rise of the mindless ‘celebrity’ culture, it goes far deeper than that!!

The mainstream religions are locked into dogma that was very effective when literacy outside the clergy, the ruling class and some merchants was almost non-existent.  The rest were easily frightened into submission.  Charges of heresy struck terror into hearts like nothing else, as in the Inquisition.  Critical thinking was prohibited – as in Galileo. 

The world has moved forward by a thousand years and much of the human population enjoys the fruits of critical thinking, as in quantum leaps in health and medicine, air travel, communications, even space exploration.  Every leap forward has been the direct result of critical thinking and widespread critical thinking is the direct result of widespread education.

While all this has been going on, the religions have remained happily stagnant in general and murderous in some instances.

Here in Australia, we re currently being treated to increasingly horrifying revelations about the widespread sexual molestation of children by the Catholic clergy and extending over many, many decades That alone is bad enough but the church in Australia has multiplied the horrors by actively protecting the predators – shifting them to other parishes where they kept right on molesting children.

At the moment, we are being treated to the spectacle of the head of the church in Australia being very conveniently moved to Rome when more and more evidence of wide abuse began to surface.  When recently called on to give evidence before a Royal Commission (the highest form of judicial enquiry in the British system of jurisprudence), he declared himself medically unfit to travel!! 

Parishioners are deserting the church in droves and the church says it has no idea why!  Nothing to do with thousand year old dogma, nothing to do with wholesale sexual abuse, of course!

I therefore suggest that the celebrity adulation is coincidental rather than causal.  Given the immense financial clout to the media and their untrammelled power to mould opinion, this is most unlikely to change any time soon.  Cake and circuses trump (sorry about that!) critical thinking every time!!!!

(As a fellow Australian, I can concur with everything that Rex Fleming has said.)

Leslie Harris, Wed 24 Feb, 19:51

I “walked” the Boston Marathon once - qualified in a lottery where I “won” a position I was so happy to have made it and I survived that I hope that feeling is the one I have when I make it to the other side!!  Lots of food for thought Mike Thanks…

karen herrick, Wed 24 Feb, 13:15

Hi Michael, what’s depressing is that the situation here in Australia mirrors that in the United States, indeed is probably worse in some ways.  What’s ironic, of course, is that at the very time that commercialised sport (particularly football) is being administered like a drug to a passive and dumbed-down population, rates of obesity, caused by lack of physical activity, are reaching epidemic levels in both Australia and the US.  In other words, sport has ceased to perform its legitimate function, as something you do on the weekend to keep fit and make friends, it has been transformed into a corporate commodity, televised by powerful media magnates, who use it as a form of social control to distract the masses away from questions of deeper meaning and reality.

The childish forms of tribal identity created by commercialised sporting franchises both reflect the infantilization of Western societies and further entrench that process.  Commercialised sport, particularly football, is being employed by our corporate rulers for the same reasons that the ancient Roman Emperors employed “Bread And Circuses” to control the plebeian masses of that empire.

There is also no doubt that the decline of organised religion in the West has created a spiritual vacuum which is being filled by a primitive new kind of hyper-masculine religious cult, geared towards Neanderthal violence and warrior-worship, in which football players have become the new Quasi-Gods of our age, replacing Jesus or the Virgin Mary, etc, as the heroes of the tabloid culture which now passes for civilization in our day.

Altogether, not too much to be optimistic about, so we are in big trouble if there is NOT an afterlife, because frankly I can’t see too much hope for THIS world.

Thanks, Rex.

rex fleming, Wed 24 Feb, 09:04

Cake and Circuses have long been used to divert the attention of the masses while the ruling class gets on with entrenching their position, expanding their control increasing their wealth.  Sport and television are Big Money businesses.  The celebrity culture is Big Money business, along with much of what appears on TV.  Remember the Golden Rule - He who has the gold makes the rules!!
It was ever thus.

Leslie Harris, Mon 22 Feb, 23:42

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“Life After Death – The Communicator” by Paul Beard – If the telephone rings, naturally the caller is expected to identify himself. In post-mortem communication, necessitating something far more complex than a telephone, it is not enough to seek the speakers identity. One needs to estimate also as far as is possible his present status and stature. This involves a number of factors, overlapping and hard to keep separate, each bringing its own kind of difficulty. Four such factors can readily be named. Read here
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