Why are the players at a sporting event more famous than the halftime show performers?

This question, which was posed in a recent column on ESPN.com (and which features one of my personal favorite performers, the Red Panda Acrobat), sounds a little dumb at first, almost tautological — the halftime show is, by definition, not the main event.

But try this slightly different version of the question: How many professional athletes can you name?  How many circus performers can you name?  Why are those two numbers so different?

If you were observing the human species from afar, you would probably be surprised by the discrepancy.  After all, both categories of people are entertainers.  Both base their livelihood on some elite level of physical skill.  And it’s hard to believe that athletes have more natural talent or devotion to their craft than, say, this guy.  But we (myself included) seem to be much more captivated by athletes than by circus performers.  Why the big difference?

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There are lots of ways to explain why humans love sports so much.  My personal favorite, though, can be found in “The Lottery in Babylon”, a short story written by Jorge Luis Borges in 1941.  I came across this story during high school and was immediately hooked by this killer first paragraph:

Like all the men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment. Look here– my right hand has no index finger. Look here–through this gash in my cape you can see on my stomach a crimson tattoo–it is the second letter, Beth. On nights when the moon is full, this symbol gives me power over men with the mark of Gimel, but it subjects me to those with the Aleph, who on nights when there is no moon owe obedience to those marked with the Gimel. In the half-light of dawn, in a cellar, standing before a black altar, I have slit the throats of sacred bulls. Once, for an entire lunar year, I was declared invisible–I would cry out and no one would heed my call, I would steal bread and not be beheaded. I have known that thing the Greeks knew not–uncertainty. In a chamber of brass, as I faced the strangler’s silent scarf, hope did not abandon me; in the river of delights, panic has not failed me. Heraclides Ponticus reports, admiringly, that Pythagoras recalled having been Pyrrhus, and before that, Euphorbus, and before that, some other mortal; in order to recall similar vicissitudes, I have no need of death, nor even of imposture.

I owe that almost monstrous variety to an institution–the Lottery– which is unknown in other nations, or at work in them imperfectly or secretly.

(You can read the full text here.)

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“The Lottery in Babylon” is, like so many Borges stories, an exploration of a mathematical idea in a fantastical setting.  This particular one (it seems to me) is about how we perceive chance and randomness in life.  In the story, The Lottery is an all-encompassing, secretive, cult-like religious institution that dictates almost every facet of people’s lives in a way that is supposedly both random and just.

To me, the most interesting part of the story is the telling of how The Lottery came to be.  The narrator speculates that The Lottery began just like any other simple gambling game: some people bet money and a few won based on the roll of a die.  But:

Naturally, those so-called “lotteries” were a failure. They had no moral force whatsoever; they appealed not to all a man’s faculties, but only to his hopefulness.

In the story, the key breakthrough for the lottery system is the inclusion of both prizes and penalties as the outcomes of lottery drawings.  Knowing that a lottery player risks some kind of serious punishment changes entirely the emotional tone of the lottery.  That is, playing the lottery becomes not just a matter of blind hope for gain, but something that involves courage and one’s sense of justice.

Babylonians flocked to buy tickets. The man who bought none was considered a pusillanimous wretch, a man with no spirit of adventure. In time, this justified contempt found a second target: not just the man who didn’t play, but also the man who lost

The rest of “The Lottery in Babylon” describes how The Lottery grows increasingly out of control: penalties and prizes become more severe and fundamentally non-monetary in nature, all drawings and decisions are conducted in secret, playing the Lottery becomes compulsory, etc.  If you have any nerdy inclinations at all, the story is a pretty good investment of ten minutes of your leisure time.

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But I have been thinking lately about “The Lottery in Babylon”, and about our love of sports.  It seems to me that we love sports for a lot of the same reasons that the Babylonians loved The Lottery: it appeals not just to our sense of hope — as in, “Oh, I hope my favorite team wins” — but also to our sense of morality.  A sporting event is, to a very large extent, a controlled series of random events.  But when fans talk about sports we don’t do it because we love probability theory (okay, maybe a small fraction of us have this motivation on occasion).  We talk about sports because we love to exalt the virtues and decry the vices of the players.  We love to watch our heroes succeed.  We love to watch our villains fail.  We love to see how normal people become heroes and villains through competition.

But the truth is that all these athletes are, to a very large extent, playing a lottery.  Those virtues and vices we talk about are largely things that we project onto the players based on random events.  As Matt at hooptheory said, “The biggest fallacy in sports is that the better team will win.”  In a sense, our athletes are so famous and so well-paid because we pay them to live a life where their glory or ignominy is dictated by random events.  Watching those events unfold and judging the character of the participants is entertaining and moving to us for some profound psychological reason (that I don’t understand).

In contrast, when you go to watch a circus performer, there is no real chance of failure.  Sure, the performer might fall briefly or drop a juggled ball.  But ultimately, you can be pretty assured that their performance will make only one point: you get to be awed by some display of great skill.  Unlike sports, the performance does not appeal to your sense of justice or of character development.  You, as a spectator, have no real opportunity to judge the character of the performer: the show has only (apparent) heroes, and no villains.  The circus, in other words, is like a “lottery” without penalties, and as such it can only appeal to a limited range of emotions.

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These days, I think in particular about LeBron James.  Now that the mighty Miami Heat have fallen in the NBA finals, LeBron is considered something of a “pusillanimous wretch”.  His biggest sin, committed on the biggest stage, was an apparent refusal to play the game as wholeheartedly as we wanted him to.  It seems to me, though, that had a few shots gone differently (say, if Dirk Nowitzki’s layups at the end of Games 2 and 4 had rolled out), we would be talking about LeBron James very differently right now.  So many hundreds of articles decrying Dallas’s heroic nature and Miami’s flawed nature would be completely reversed.  In other words, our sense of the “true character” of the participants in this sporting contest is based very largely on the outcome of two shots.

As a more extreme example, you can notice that Michael Jordan would have lost his most famous game had it not been for two blown shot-clock violation calls earlier in the game.  Without that last-second, out-in-a-blaze-of-glory, second-threepeat-winning shot, the ultra-heroified Michael Jordan might have a significantly different public image.

What if this shot hadn’t mattered at all?

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All this is not to say that we are somehow barbarians or idiots for being sports fans.  I personally love watching sports, and I love the process of evaluating the character of the players involved, and I don’t feel at all guilty for that.  For whatever reason, it’s an endlessly enjoyable process, and for the most part no one is being exploited in the name of my entertainment.  But I do think it’s good to be aware of what it means to be an athlete and what it means to be a spectator.  Namely, that we pay to watch our athletes play a modern-day version of the Lottery in Babylon.

1. June 18, 2011 4:11 pm

There’s also a “right way” to fail, at least in the fans’ eyes. You have to go down shooting (literally in the case of basketball). Derrick Rose did it that way this year, and fans loved him for it: http://bit.ly/k4bwDO (link from Hoop Speak). LeBron’s “passivity stoked outrage. Though James had a much better series than Derrick Rose just had, we won’t remember it that way. He failed incorrectly, leading to a dreaded “quitter” tag. I wonder, would James have been judged less severely had he taken 30 shot attempts in that blowout?” (referring to last year’s Cavs-Celtics series).

LeBron failed the “wrong way” again this year, which makes it all the easier for us to judge him morally as shrinking from the moment, not going down like the hero that we want our superstars to be.

2. June 20, 2011 5:27 pm

“On nights when the moon is full, this symbol gives me power over men with the mark of Gimel, but it subjects me to those with the Aleph, who on nights when there is no moon owe obedience to those marked with the Gimel.” It’s another way of saying, “On any given night.” And I think you can add one other twist: maybe we watch sports to also experience losing. Just hoping to win isn’t enough of a thrill. This is a application of the Borges story.

3. June 20, 2011 5:27 pm

I meant to say “superb” application.