I am not a psychologist nor, indeed, a social scientist of any particular stripe. But I do like to think about people, the things they do, and the society in which we all live. Further, I am a bit of a sports nut. I have always participated in sports — in fact, they kept me sane (!) through college and graduate school — and continue to do so today (?). And I watch a lot of sports on television, as my wife will attest! So I was delighted to see that a group of kids from South Chicago recently won the United States portion of the Little League World Series (which is actually a world series, since it involves teams from around the world and not just in the United States). As of this writing they will play Korea (that’s South Korea) for the Little League world championship. It’s a great story, though, like many others, I was disappointed to see Mo’ne Davis and her team defeated and unable to continue to play. Now there was a great story.
But when I heard this morning on ESPN that the championship by the team from South Chicago brought “new hope” to that city, and particularly that section of that city, I did wonder. Seriously? New hope for South Chicago because a group of kids won a few baseball games? Get real.
And that’s the issue. Sigmund Freud talks about the need for all humans to develop what he called a “reality principle.” We need to be able to separate reality from illusion. The notion that this championship can bring new hope to a huge portion of a large city in America is pure illusion. South Chicago is a place where most people would not choose to live. I know. My wife’s grandparents lived there and we visited them on weekends while we were at Northwestern. We were always careful to leave before dark. Students at the University of Chicago are warned not to walk alone in the streets around their campus. It’s simply not safe. That’s reality.
It is certainly the case that involvement in sports can save many a kid from gangs and drugs, which are common in South Chicago. Let’s hope their involvement in Little League Baseball will save most, if not all, of the kids on this particular championship team. But to state as a truth that this win gives the city “new hope” is, as I say, pure fiction. It is the sort of hyperbole that television engages in to tug the heart-strings of their viewers, keep them watching, and help them escape their drab, wretched lives (as Tom Lehrer would have it). We should be used to it by now, but we need to recognize it for what it is: it is pure escapism, an attempt to substitute illusion for reality. Sports are simply a fragment of life itself. After the LLWS those who live in South Chicago, like the rest of us, will have to get back to reality, though television is always there to help them escape whenever it gets too tough. After all, the Chicago Bears are supposed to be very good this year!
We need to be concerned that we fail to develop that all-important reality principle that Freud talks about. We need to keep reminding ourselves that games are just games and sports are fun and games, but they are (for most of us) merely an escape from reality. They cannot become the whole of reality, though I am beginning to suspect that for many people who are immersed in such things as “fantasy football” that ship has sailed. Reality can sometimes be unpleasant and even downright painful. But it is what it is. And it isn’t fantasy football or a winning team that gives us all a thrill but should never pretend to provide a substitute for the real thing.