Hope As Illusion

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.

 

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Going For Olympic Gold

In its wisdom, the International Olympic Committee recently decided to drop wrestling from its “core sports” group. Wrestling will now have to vie with seven other sports for a single spot on the 2020 Olympics — and the betting is wrestling will not make it in. And the even safer bet is it’s all about money. So what else is new?

Wrestling, which goes back  to the first “modern” Olympics in 1896 in Athens — and almost certainly dates back to the games played by warring city-states in ancient Greece –will be replaced by (wait for it) GOLF! That’s right, the game that requires grace, quickness, agility, and strength will be replaced by a game for middle-aged Republicans. I exaggerate, of course: one of the professional golfers who is eligible to compete for this country in the Olympics is a Democrat — or so we are told. But it is also true that some of those who will compete will have problems lining up their putts because of the large gut that obtrudes. Is it just me, or does this whole thing seem almost sacrilegious?

In any event, this is clearly a sign of the times when money trumps tradition and long-time wrestling coach Vic Stanley, who commented on the recent decision, is surely correct in saying that the Committee is simply “following the money.” It’s a trend that started when the I.O.C. decided to drop altogether the distinction between amateur and professional — admitting, sadly, that it was a distinction without a difference as so many countries were paying the athletes and keeping them apart from the ordinary athletes in the lap of luxury. It was the same problems the tennis world had many years ago when they dropped the distinction and “opened” tennis to all players. It seems the “amateurs” like Roy Emerson were making more money than the professionals — under the table, of course.

So Pandora’s box was opened and we now have professional athletes making millions of dollars playing games year-round who compete for an Olympic medal — and a bit of money under the table as well. Nothing comes for free and jingoism is the rule of the day: how many medals do we have, Pop? Do we have the most, huh? There are very few nooks left where we can find the true amateur: the athlete who plays for the pure love of sport. Professionalism has filtered down even into the ranks of the children in Little League and Pop Warner football where parents hassle their kids over losses and corporate sponsors stand by with a check book looking for the latest talent. The answer is not to play with no score and no winners or losers (that’s downright dishonest and the kids know it) but to simply keep the money out of it. Sadly, I suspect, that ship has sailed.