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Sports as an Opiate

Mort's twin grandchildren, Della and Marcus Maimon, start life early as Phillies fans.

Marx (Karl, not Groucho) observed that religion, with its deep influence on people, is the opiate of the masses. I think that sports has a similar influence. Untold millions of people, including me, invest part of their discretionary time and sense of well-being in the physical performances of people who do things we can only admire and envy. These athletes display strength, resilience, agility, and courage we know we couldn’t possibly duplicate. And when these efforts result in victory, we feel warm and satisfied. We feel like winners, so the world seems more agreeable. Conversely, we squirm and fidget in our easy chairs when our surrogates fail to deliver on our hopes and expectations. Then, we can be colorfully vocal about what dissatisfies us, like lack of effort or clumsiness or lousy play calling. Some of us, unfortunately, condemn more often than we praise, a reaction not uncommon to Philadelphia fans. That may be due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors.

Identifying myself as a Philadelphia fan to other sports devotees can be risky. It frequently sparks one of two reactions. My fellow sufferers smile wanly and nod, communicating sympathetic understanding. Words alone can’t describe our plight, so why try? Those whose loyalties lie elsewhere either acknowledge the revelation non-committedly---the wise choice--or laugh humorlessly, coming up with some snarky version of, “Oh, Philadelphia! Isn’t that where they throw snowballs at Santa Claus?” The comment pertains to an incident at an Eagles game decades ago when a few people in the stands, bored and cold at half-time, bombarded the old gent at half time as he circled the field in his sleigh. Making the incident more newsworthy was a photo of the then-mayor, someone always eager to appear to be “one of the boys,” joining the fray.

That episode has become legendary, particularly useful to dull sportswriters who, desperate for a story detail when covering a Philly team, dredge it up regularly. When someone smirkily brings it up with me, I can’t entirely control my impatience. To me, true Philadelphia fans comprise a special breed. Not pampered by habitual wins, like, say, New York fans (Jets excluded this year), not inured to cheating as a victory strategy, like Patriots’ and Astros’ fans, we’ve been relative strangers to consistent success. That deprivation has made us surly and impatient, like caged and ravenous mutts.

Quirkiness aside, Philadelphia fans are unquestionably the most knowledgeable, most astute in captivity. And do me a favor, resist the observation that that’s where we should be, in captivity. We understand complexities and tactics of sports, unlike fans, for example, in Atlanta who attend games primarily to do the tomahawk chop, a demeaning gesture I hope we’ve seen the last of, or those in other cities, where primary involvement in proceedings is signified by doing the “wave.”

To me, the most admirable quality of local fans is how they acknowledge achievements of opposition players. When Jim Thome hit his five hundredth home run against the Phillies at Veterans’ Stadium, fans rose for a standing ovation. Partisans that we are, we recognize real accomplishment, whatever its source. So, don’t give me any nonsense about the bone-deep irascibility of my fellow sufferers and me. We mingle recognition of and applause for quality performance with sharp critiques of what displeases us.

The past NFL season was another one filled with discontent. Obviously, our sense of championship deprivation will not abruptly disappear. For me, that fact hurts more because, fool that I was, I bought into pre-season predictions that the Eagles would be highly competitive. Being famished for so long, I’ve developed a vulnerability to optimistic predictions. I wish there were a vaccine for that.

Since there’s no way to purge my sports’ fixation, I’m going to try practicing what I preached to my wife Elaine years ago when I guided her initial interest in games. I told her not to obsess about final scores, that the true beauty of all sports lies in how skillfully their fundamentals are executed. Concentrate, I advised her, on physical challenges and the way players respond to them. Scores and standings matter, but focusing on them too much ignores the true aesthetic of adept play. The beauty of performance is on display frequently. It’s up to us, even Phillies’ fans, to concentrate on what really deserves our attention.

Reviving this basic idea may sound like surrendering to the inevitable also-ran mentality. I do believe it, though, and hope it tempers the effects of the opiate I’ll never be able to give up.


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