sports blog by andy shenk

Learning to Cheer

In Musings on October 2, 2012 at 6:07 PM

Titling this piece “Learning to Cheer,” I suppose I come across as delusional. The outcome of an athletic event, after all, is inconsequential and so, too, might the emotional involvement of a fan be similarly dismissed. Nonetheless, the effort made by the athlete cannot be so easily discounted. In delving into the human, individual side to athletics, I’m struck by the sacrifice of time and physical energy required of the athlete, which, in turns, shapes his personal development and the lives of those near him. Rags-to-riches fairy-tales are not the only examples, either, of sports’ effect on the wider world. Consider the lonely long-distance runner running eighty miles per week in the midst of medical school or the young basketball player forgoing social commitments weekend after weekend in order to shoot jumpers at all hours of the morning and night.

But when the select few heroes, champions of sport, parade before the crowd, I sometimes ponder the confidence projected outward by their uniforms concealing hard, strong bodies. I remember the days I stood on the line, prepared to race, quiet and strained before the coming torture. I thought of nothing but the work ahead. Only when I staggered out the other end, past the finish line, did I find peace. The job done, I could savor rest and the strength I found in flying by foot for 8 km over grassy hills and through forest paths.

Don’t talk then of the insignificance of an athlete’s profession. The professional athlete is too quickly critiqued, perhaps thanks to the wealth and fame enjoyed by him and his peers. Such external attributes only obscure the person underneath, who gave much effort to rise to the top of his sport. There is little difference between the public scorn accorded the street beggar, seen as a failure no matter the reasons for his poverty, and the naked jealousy shown the wealthy ball player, who slaved for years unnoticed to gain his present status.

Tellingly, however, such disparate and extreme examples, the beggar and star athlete, reveal humanity’s tendency to reduce one another to cartoonish stereotypes, bound by the outward trappings of personality, material possessions, appearance, and belief.

The few friends I have are close to me because we have shared our inner thoughts and dreams, so much so that I begin to forget the awful emotional distance that separates us and look without defensive prejudice upon my companion. That relational honesty, to be treasured when it is found, is most often absent beyond a small circle of confidants. It’s far simpler to fall back on condescension or envy, pity or fear, rather than to perceive in the human being, seated across the table from you or on the television screen, a kindred soul, worthy of respect and trust.

So when I watch the disarming smiles and jokes of the famous athlete, intended for the teammates gathered round, I ponder what his life is about, away from the drama on the court and the star-crazed media. I want to trust his humanity and appreciate the depths through which he has journeyed to appear before me each weekend night, swinging and shooting and kicking. His confidence on the field, I know, is but the simplest of his attributes, revealing very little of the person inside. For if I have known fear and uneasy sleep for days and weeks on end, and if I have lost hope in myself, yet remained a comfort and a support to those around me, I suspect that the athlete, brought virtually into my home, must, too, sometimes fear the road ahead. There is nothing that separates him from me save circumstance of birth, if our common humanity is to be believed.

While there is no value in the outcome of a game, there is still value in the players on the field, no matter the derision accorded professional athletes by many. Likewise, the work of the politician and entertainer may be devalued, but let us not forget the person underneath the fancy suit who seeks truth, and through his actions, peace within.

We take nothing to the grave and so, perhaps, stern pontifications on the theme of our common humanity ring false. If outward symbols such as wealth are easily discarded, why not the inner state of human emotions as well? We take nothing to the grave, and we are each to die, never to return. In this there is empirical truth, the likes of which thousands of years of human existence has not yet overturned. But, if we are to hope in something in this life, there is nothing better than shared respect and love for the human race. Life – we share nothing else equally with the rest of the human race. Wealth, religious belief, skin color, and politics are but means to divide and enflame, and, not surprisingly, entirely circumstantial, should one take time to ponder the sheer coincidence involved in their accumulation. Life, however, unites all – one beating heart indistinguishable from another. And, like the trappings that accompany birth, we do nothing to deserve life, the greatest gift we can ever receive.

In accepting the sheer coincidence and insignificance of our life there is hope, for from that acceptance comes gratitude. Gratitude for the life given, not earned, which we enjoy each new day, no matter the mistakes and struggles of the day behind us.

Yet with this gratitude there is also, ultimately, great responsibility. Though all are given life, many lose it, whether through dire need or depression. The starving child may rightfully reject life as a curse, wailing over the burden of awaking each morning to a hollow stomach. And the depressed man sitting at home, alone, with failed relationships and little confidence, may wish he could leave the world sooner rather than later. It is for such as these, if we have love at all for our fellow earthly companions, our brothers and sisters, that we live our life. What we have been given and through circumstance can enjoy, should be freely shared. If in doing so we give up something of our own, we do well to consider that tomorrow we may be the ones in need of help.

How do I now return to the world of sports and the title I penned in the beginning: “Learning to Cheer?”

Take, for example, a recent match in which I found myself enthralled: Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Baltika Kaliningrad in the Russian Cup. The two teams, competing in Russian football’s only knockout competition, staged a physical, back-and-forth battle before nearly 15,000 dripping wet fans in Kaliningrad’s Baltika Stadium. The arena sold out for the first time since the turn of the century and Kaliningrad drove its men forward against the defending and newly reinforced Russian champions. Though Zenit’s mega millions stars won the day, 2-1, at night’s end Baltika Stadium rang with cheers of “Job well done!” for the uncompromising effort put forth by the hosts. The second-tier footballers trudged off into the European night with their fans’ applause echoing again and again around the stands.

Cheering on a team, whether they play on a rinky-dink court in front of a few fans or in the English Premier League, provokes loyalty. Having invested emotionally in a team’s competitive success, no matter the physical distance between ourselves and the object of our affection, a connection is made. Nonetheless, such idolization can quickly sour when the idol fails repeatedly to succeed. Having thrown our support behind a team that wins, we find it difficult to support repeated losses and irrationally reason that through our discontent and anger the team might mend its ways in order to win us back.

In comparing such behavior to human relationships, however, something rings false. Human beings, above all, crave trust and the confidence of others to find their way through life. Spouses are not commended for yelling at one another after a mistake or tragic failure. Employees do not thrive under the constant criticisms of a boss, upset by his subordinates’ shortcomings.

If such close-knit human relationships often crack under the strain of intense negativity, coming from those who have in the past been loved and respected, it’s much less likely that the criticism of sports fans positively affects the teams they love. From a practical standpoint, few fans ever come to know the players on their teams, or, even more improbably, gain their trust. Pessimism from an unknown fan, spoken out of frustration, is unlikely to inspire or motivate the athlete, though it probably depresses and discourages.  The athlete, rather than concern himself with outside criticisms, is focused on his own life and the steps he must take to grow and mature as a player.

Learning to cheer, therefore, entails learning to encourage and support the team in the most difficult times. It’s no accident that many fanatical football supporters build their fan clubs around the principle of cheering for the team no matter the circumstances. They understand that when the stadium is full and the home team is winning 3-0, the team feeds easily off of the crowd energy and the exhilaration of victory. It’s when the weather turns cold, and on a dark night in a half-empty stadium the team loses its way, that the most dedicated fans are needed as never before, to remind the players that no matter the result they are loved and supported.

Such commitment is reflective of the support each of us needs in our despair, when hunger, or depression, or anguish set in. Perhaps through faults of our own, perhaps not. In either case, we dearly need the selfless presence of our friends to help and to comfort and remind us that life is given to us freely and that we are loved freely.

The outcome of a sports event has no significance. Win or lose, we profit not in the final tally. But, there is profit in learning to encourage our idols under the bleakest of circumstances and to stand with them when they fail. We hope for the same ourselves during our journey on earth. For life, unlike sports, has no winners or losers. All, indeed, ends at the final whistle and we have but one another to cheer for and carry, when our own strength begins to fail.

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