Sunday, December 04, 2011

Pleasure Seeking Trouble

Last week, my favorite professional football team (the Green Bay Packers) and my favorite college football team (the Wisconsin Badgers) won important games. The Packers all but sewed up their division with what turned out to be a pretty easy victory over the Detroit Lions. The Badgers shellacked Penn State to advance to the Big 10 Championship. Despite the magnitude of the games, I don't recall too much conversation about either one in the succeeding week.

This week, both teams won again. But for me, there has already been a noticeable difference in the level of interest. Everywhere I went today there was conversation about last night's Badger game. I haven't been out in public since the Packer game ended a few hours ago, but I would predict the same level of conversation about the Packers tomorrow. The difference between this week and last week? This week's games weren't nearly as easily won. At times the Badgers looked like they would certainly lose. They overcame some obstacles, made some unlikely plays, and escaped after an odd penalty against their opponents. The Packers appeared at times to be vulnerable for their first loss of the season, most notably when their opponent tied the game with under a minute to play. Overtime seemed certain, but the Packers mounted a furious drive in that closing minute and kicked a field goal to win as time expired.

In both the Badger and Packer game this week, analysts referred to the contest as a "heavyweight fight." I tend to laugh at this metaphor, because the few heavyweight fights I've seen in my life (I've seen few since most are on Pay-Per-View) have been boring--a couple of fat guys hitting each other with no noticeable effect, until one inexplicably tips over (Such as the 1990 Cooney vs. Foreman fight). But to borrow another cliche, these games were "seesaw battles."

And that's fine and good if you don't have a vested interest in the outcome. Seesaw battles are going to be entertaining if you are watching for the sake of being entertained. But theoretically, fans don't watch for that reason. They invest in the success of a team they choose to affiliate themselves with, and then take pride (or suffer humiliation) with that team's fortunes. Therefore, victories in "heavyweight fight/seesaw battles" shouldn't be as savored as those in which your guys run roughshod over the opponent.

And yet--we tend to celebrate victories the greater if they have a measure of agony in the achieving. Actually, St. Augustine noticed this phenomenon long before football was invented. He wrote:

The conquering commander triumphant; yet had he not conquered unless he had fought; and the more peril there was in the battle, so much the more joy is there in the triumph. The storm tosses the sailors, threatens shipwreck; all wax pale at approaching death; sky and sea are calmed, and they are exceedingly joyed, as having been exceeding afraid. A friend is sick, and his pulse threatens danger; all who long for his recovery are sick in mind with him. He is restored, though as yet he walks not with his former strength; yet there is such joy, as was not, when before he walked sound and strong. Yea, the very pleasures of human life men acquired by difficulties, not those only which fall upon us unlooked for, and against our wills, but even by self-chosen, and pleasure-seeking trouble.

I like that as a definition of sports: "Pleasure-seeking trouble." From now on, instead of saying that I'm going to watch a football game involving one of my favorite teams, I'm going to announce that I will be engaging in "Pleasure-seeking trouble."


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