Toward a Sociology of the Sport Spectator: A Rare and Patented Argument (Part Two of Three)

by Eli S. EVANS

[ A continuation of Part One ]

Now, it seems, the problem has been solved. Cable television is now being piped into the common room—watching it, I imagine, will become one of the common activities commonly carried out by all of us, in common, in that room—and in any event with it one can easily ignored anyone else who might already be there. ESPN is the network that is most relevant to this conversation, of course, and as far as a sociology of the sport spectator goes—thinking of Adorno—and as far as this question of whether or not now, more than thirty years after his essay called “Free Time,” which may or may not have been an essay on free time—the title alone certainly does not ensure that it was—we still lack a sociology of the sport spectator goes, I would have to say that the very presence of ESPN responds in the negative. I have seen it before: my father, some years ago, installed cable television in the house I grew up in and now, when I go home, instead of simply staring into the void that is both that which is at the center of my existence and that which constitutes its past, I tend to watch it, and based on that experience—to say nothing of my experiences since Tuesday—I would suggest that, really, ESPN is a sociology of the sport spectator. Or, at the very least, it’s very close. It is so close that to make ESPN into a complete or completed sociology of the sport spectator, one would not so much have to analyze it as, simply, to document it. A careful, scientific documentation of ESPN would be that incisive sociology of the sport spectator the absence of which Adorno did not rectify but rather, simply, indicated. It was a generous move on his part—it gave the rest of us something to do, I suppose—but also, perhaps, it is the only way one can ever begin to end a piece of writing: by pointing to that which still needs to be written.


When I am home, in addition to avoiding any confrontations with the void that is both at the center of my existence and constitutes its past by watching television—sports in particular, and almost exclusively—I play a game with my father called piss poor. It is a game that we ourselves have invented during the long stretches of time that I tend to spend there—always moment of transition between one part of the year and the next—with nothing to do, and the rules of engagement are, essentially, as follows: I sit in a chair at the far end of the dining room, in front of a cabinet that is fronted by, my mother says, a valuable leaded glass door, and my father sits in his chair at the far opposite end of the living room, which is contiguous with the dining room, separated only by a low-hanging ceiling beam. There is nothing terribly valuable directly behind my father, where he sits, but there are valuable items nearby sitting on a shelf that serves the purpose of displaying ostensibly valuable items: for example, a Steuben glass bowl that we inherited from my father’s mother Ruth, and a piece of pottery from the Mata Ortiz pottery-making tribe in Mexico; a clay rabbi, painted all in silver, that my sister made in seventh grade art class. In any case, the presence of these valuable and breakable objects is essential to the mood of the game—one of strained expectation—but not officially contained within its parameters. The came is played with a ball called a Spaldeen, which is something along the lines of an oversized pink racket ball—but not quite as slippery as a racket ball—and which, to my knowledge, can only be acquired at Downer Hardware on Downer Avenue in Milwaukee. It is essential that the game be played with a Spaldeen, for no other ball offers the correct proportions of bounciness, slickness, and size. The game, then, is that we throw the ball back and forth to one another on one bounce. The ball must not bounce more than once on its trajectory between the two of us and it must not arrive on the fly, which is to say, without bouncing. The goal of the game, on the other hand, is for the person to whom you have thrown the ball, on no more and no less than a single bounce, to fail to catch that ball. The payoff, on yet another hand, for achieving that goal, is that you are then permitted to shout “piss poor!” in that person’s direction, a denunciation that in fact fills the space of a tallied point. Speaking of tallies, it is also important to note that no exact tally is kept during this game, such that at the end there is no clear winner or loser—an ample space for arguments over who would or would not have been the winner or loser if a tally indeed had been kept—such that ultimately the best one can hope to gain from the competition is the satisfaction—on each occasion complete and renewed—of calling “piss poor!” in the other player’s direction. Like baseball, this game is regulated by a zone of what might be called reasonable opportunity. The ball must pass through zone which gives the receiver a reasonable opportunity to catch it. There is no umpire and there are no precise measurements given regarding this zone: it is, rather, a matter of interpretation and consensus, such that it, as well, provides space for argument, and despite this remains fairly well-understood. There need be no measurements and dimensions for two reasonable men playing with a ball to know what reasonably could have been caught, and what could not possibly have been caught within reason.

This is the game, and the question at hand, then, is how one, given these restrictions—given that the ball must bounce once and no more than once, and must pass through a zone, something like the strike zone in baseball, of reasonable opportunity for the receiver to catch it—can possibly prevent the receiver, his competitor, from catching the ball. In the interest of explaining this, I would like to include, as reference, without explaining how I came to read it, the following passage from a book by a man named Donald A. Norman called The Design of Everyday Things: “Consider how mistakes might be made: by mismatch; by taking the current situation and falsely matching it with something in the past. Although we are really good at finding examples from the past to match the present, these examples are biased toward the regularities of the past or toward the unique, discrepant event…[That which] is neither common nor unique is simply rare. We won’t deal well with it: we are apt to classify the rare with either the common or the unique, and either of these choices is wrong. The same powers that make us so good at dealing with the common and the unique lead to severe error with the rare.” I think this might be the best formula for any analysis of the mechanisms of sport, to say nothing of the sociology that may or may not be lacking almost forty years after Adorno—the Adorno, that Adorno—suggested that it was. In any sporting act, we have the offensive player and the defensive player; in fact, one might argue that it is precisely this relationship that creates the situation of sport. If this is the case, then we might say that the way sports works is that, in every instance, in order to be successful, the offensive player—and, for purposes of clarity, and because in a sport like baseball the poles are effectively reversed, I’ll say here that we might also call the offensive player the “player who acts” and the defensive player “the player who reacts”—must create in the defensive player an experience of the rare, such that he makes a mistake. So for instance: when I throw the ball on one bounce to my father, the rules of the game, although they are only implied, determine that it must pass through a highly restricted zone such that he is given a reasonable opportunity to catch it. Therefore, if he fails to catch it, it can only be because he made a mistake—not because, for instance, I threw it to the other side of the room. According to Norman, he will make a mistake when he has an experience of the rare—of that which appears to him neither as the common event nor as an event that is clearly unique to the common event, a clear deviation from the pattern, something he will recognize immediately as unreasonable, an event to which he need not react at all. It is a matter of psychology, then. It is always a matter of neither doing that which your opponent—the one who is reacting—is expecting you to do, nor doing that which is totally other than that which he is expecting you to do. In piss poor, when you are on the offensive—that is to say, when you are the thrower—you have basically five tools to work with: left spin, which, of course, causes the ball to spin to your left after it bounces, and pass traveling to the left through the zone of reasonable opportunity; right spin, which, of course, produces the opposite effect; top spin, which will cause the ball to leap more quickly and aggressively off of the floor than seems to match the speed at which it hits the floor; back spin, which, of course, will have the opposite effect; and, finally, simply a straight bounce, modified by no spin whatsoever.

All of this, I suppose, might constitute some sort of an explanation or even an analysis of sport, but a sociology?

Toward formulating a sociology, I would say that the question, perhaps, becomes not how is the game played, but, rather, what makes the game worth playing? And to answer that question, I would return to the presence, nearby, of the supposedly valuable and apparently breakable objects, the leaded glass cabinetry and the trinkets on the shelf. Without them, the game would be the same, but it would be boring.

These, one might say, are the stakes.


[ Continued in Part Three ]

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Toward a Sociology of the Sport Spectator: A Rare and Patented Argument (Part Three of Three) »

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