When people see me at art shows or at the theater or at poetry readings, they get a sense of who I am — that “arts guy” — an image I am happy to embrace. But when I begin to wax lyrical about my love of basketball, or even more, soccer (and yes, I know it’s really football, but when in Rome…), I am constantly surprised by the reaction. “You like sports? I would never have guessed.” It is as if sports and art are mutually exclusive interests. To that I say, “au contraire.” Sports are the perfect complement to the arts.
The World Cup starts tomorrow, and I am extremely excited (as well as filled with the dread and sense of impending doom that comes with being an England fan). It is not called the beautiful game for nothing. Like basketball (which shares many of the same characteristics), the game is live action theater, with twists and turns, misery and joy, all happening improvisationally. Long before it dominated network TV, my friend Pete told me that he had been watching reality TV for decades. It was called basketball.
Think about it. Both plays and sporting events begin in a controlled arena. A play takes place in a theater. A game begins in a stadium (Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium is nicknamed “The Theatre of Dreams). During the course of two hours, events will unfold before our eyes. In Shakesperean times, the audience would shout at the villain or cheer loudly for the hero. In “Henry V,” the audience reacted to the St. Crispin’s Day speech as if they were the army uniting behind the king.
Part of the appeal of live theater is the shared experience, the group participation in a unique event (even if the play is on a long run, no two performances will ever be the same). Watching a sport is the same, shared experience. During a game, the crowd becomes a single entity, moving and cheering as the “plot” shifts.
Watching an athlete perform to their highest potential is thrilling, in the same way that watching an actor perform. LeBron James is to basketball as Ian McKellen is to the stage. Christiano Ronaldo is as revered on his stage as Audra McDonald is on Broadway. Watching Brazil’s teamwork for Carlos Alberto’s classic goal at the 1970 World Cup is no different from watching an ensemble bring “Les Miserable” to the stage.
And it doesn’t have to be professional. I have seen community theater productions that have moved me to tears, or made me cry with laughter — and I have seen high school productions that have stayed with me for a long time. Conversely, I have seen professional plays that have sucked. But that is also part of the appeal. Whether a good game or a bad game, one never knows what is going to happen.
So back to the World Cup. It is like a one-month fringe festival. Most of the world’s population will tune in at some point for the drama. And watching the world watching provides its own drama. Many people will be in Brazil, but many more gather at parties, bars, town squares, or just to watch on their own.