As the Beijing Olympics approach, and as I research boxing, sports and Muhammad Ali at his most political, a few quotes from Mike Marqusee’s Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, pages 11-14, commenting on the evolution of sport (and the comment on human nature):

At root there is something irrational and arbitrary about sporting partisanship. As Jerry Seinfeld once observed, “People come back from the game yelling, “‘We won! We won!’ No: they won; you watched.”

How is it that passive spectators come to feel they partake in someone else’s victory or defeat?

This leap of imagination, this widening of the definition of the self is a wonderfully human phenomenon, which is why, as Seinfeld realized, it is also a rich vein of comedy…

This phenomenon is clearly inherent in human nature, for is affiliation with a tribe any more rational? Humans generally pick the team closest in proximity—or today, often the team with the most famous player.

Doris Lessing discusses the phenomenon in Group Minds, a chapter from her book, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside:

“…what is dangerous is not the belonging to a group, or groups, but not understanding the social laws that govern groups and govern us. When we’re in a group we tend to think as that group does: we may even have joined the group to find “like-minded” people. But we also find our thinking changing because we belong too a group.

It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion, as a member of a group.

Think back now to the horrors of 9/11. One person—one person—Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, voted against a resolution (HJ Resolution 64) authorizing the president to use (HJ Res 64):

“…all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks….[my italics].”

The general citizenry of beleaguered and largely illiterate Afghanistan—one of the world’s poorest countries, hammered by ten years of war with the Russian superpower, and then the civil war, and in the grip of a non-elected fundamentalist group—surely did not plan, authorize, commit or aid the terrorist attack in New York City.

And Barbara Lee? She was not even saying no to war. She was saying:

“We need to step back. We’re grieving. We need to step back and think about this so that it doesn’t spiral out of control. We have to make sure we don’t make any mistakes.”

A rational response, it would seem, under most any circumstances. The vote on this resolution was staggering. It passed 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House. Lee’s vote was the only one in opposition. For this she received immediate death threats, and had a bodyguard put on duty to protect her life.

Ted Kennedy might step up and support Obama and this person and that person can sing their own praises to the sky, but can you imagine the courage Barbara Lee’s decision took? Now that’s worth remembering…

I wonder if Barbara will ever be given a place in American history for that one dissenting vote—a Rosa Parks for the early 21st century, except Rosa had the NAACP behind her, I believe. Who did Barbara have?

Here’s a little more from Marqusee on the evolution of the sporting spectacle:

Modern, secular spectator sports—in the forms of boxing, horseracing and cricket—first emerged from the womb of parochial ritual and folk pastime in mid-eighteenth-century England.

[Modern, secular spectator sports’] midwives were rapid urbanization, the spread of market relations and the growth of an ambitious elite with both time and money to squander. The sporting realm preserved and organized the pointlessness, the triviality of play…

The loyalties and identifications [of the spectator] are not inherent in the spectacle; the tie between spectator and competitor is a constructed one, and the meanings it carries for either are generated by the histories—collective, individual—brought to bear on a contest that would otherwise be devoid of significance to all but direct participants.

Precisely because they are universal and transparent, innocent of significance or consequence, sports became charged with meanings; because they meant nothing in themselves, they could come to mean anything.

Noam Chomsky in an interview seen in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.

You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laughter]

I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars]

I mean, they have nothing to do with me, why am I cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any—it doesn’t make sense.

But the point is, it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements—in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism.

That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.

I’ll finish with a thought-provoking point from Marqusee:

The egalitarian autonomy that is the presupposition of modern supports was overlaid with the prevailing hierarchies [with a society—class, race etc.].

A a result, competitors were to be judged by criteria extraneous to sports…Thus the “role model,” that incubus on the back of so many sporting champions, was born out of a need to tame the democracy of sport. It was a means of neutralizing its sublime indifference to social status.

Interesting, huh? It does not surprise me that boxers—with the raw ferocity it takes to fight—have challenged convention perhaps most aggressively. Jack Johnson was crazily fearless at the turn of the century. And then, of course, Muhammad Ali, whose image in 1964—he was booed before his rematch with Liston, as Champion of the World—was polar opposite to mainstream society than the beloved figure he largely is today.

Well, I guess we haven’t checked a score, but we’re a little more up to date in the world of sports. Lots of love to you and yours, and if you have kids, may your early morning hockey tomorrow not be too early.


PS For a little comic relief after all that high-brow sports analysis, here’s a live excerpt from Understanding Ken, about a ten-year-old Canadian boy in Spokane, Washington, USA for a hockey weekend, circa 1973.



  1. philip mccormack says:

    Hi Petesy, Being a fan, fanatic, makes one think they belong, when you obviously don’t. It’s like gambling, a high when you win a low when you lose-so we have another of life’s addictions, to replace the love and feelings we yearn for. With love Dad

  2. Erynn says:

    I was another person who opposed immediately striking out after the attacks on September 11th. We didn’t know who was responsible. We didn’t know exactly what had happened, in much the same way that the attack by Timothy McVeigh was originally thought to have been “foreign terrorists” — we could have been (and were historically in both cases) very wrong in our first, passionate assessment.

    When I spoke out online against taking immediate, unthinking action, I was accused of being a Moslem, of being Godless, of being anti-American, a traitor, a terrorist myself. I found myself surrounded by those who were advocating “nuking the desert to glass” to keep America “safe.” I know this was only a fragment of what that brave woman, Barbara Lee, had to face, and I look at her as the hero of the hour for simply urging enough time to evaluate the situation rather than dashing in with guns blazing, killing the innocent in a thirst for blood and revenge. I still fail to understand how the US response makes us any “better” than those who flew planes into buildings that day.

    Perhaps this is why I’ve never been much of a person for spectator sports, and for team sports in particular. Unless I was playing myself, I’ve had no real interest in them or in the fervor that goes along with them. I’ve watched equestrian events, fencing, martial arts and figure skating — not to root for one participant or another, one team or another, but to appreciate the beauty of the form, the connection between human and horse, the skill and subtlety of the individual as an artist.

    Yeah, I always was a little weird…

  3. Dear Erynn,

    Thanks for your always thoughtful comments. An anti-American, Godless, Moslem. That takes some doing. You could have stumped them all by saying, “Actually, I’m into Wicca, so bite me,” but who would have understood?

    Yeah, Barbara Lee..I’m just so impressed by that courage. And her views were so rational, feeling, thoughtful. She wasn’t even opposed to war!—just let’s take a little time.

    May we all be so courageous under duress. Hope all is well with your writing, and lots of love to you,


  4. Karen says:

    Hi Pete,

    First, thank you for again mentioning my hero, Barbara Lee. I, too, hope she finds a place in history, but I fear the same mass media who helped vilify her will be writing that history. Everyone at this address was against the willy nilly jumping to war against anyone after 9/11, and completely against invading Iraq.

    Let’s not be too hard on organized sports and the fanaticism that can accompany them. There’s much more to sports than the insanity we see via the media. I come from a family of serious sports fans, both as participants and spectators. Except when we participate, never do we believe we had a hand in a team winning. We don’t like the business side of professional sports, however, we do deeply appreciate the hours and ability necessary for athletes to do what they do (those who do it sans steroids). Do we comment and criticize when we watch; yes, but eventually someone in the room says, “And if our butts could do that, we’d be out there being criticized.”

    Pete, how many hours did you spend with a hockey stick in your hands? For me it was a baseball or basketball. I still toss a ball when I need to think. And once the motions involved in a solid free throw or hitting the net in that spot above the goalie’s shoulder became muscle memory, where did your mind go? I’m betting as you honed your sports skills, you honed your introspection skills.

    I learned baseball, football, basketball, and boxing strategy following these sports with my Daddy. Hockey strategy I learned from my Grandpa. My Dad also taught me how to play these sports. I spent hours practicing foul shots, catching off a brick wall, throwing back at a target on the wall, etc. I also learned that my body can do pretty amazing stuff, how to pace, perseverance, patience, and that I can always dig down and find more strength. I learned a mindset. Most important, my relationship with my Daddy and Grandpa gained additional depth through a common language. In turn, we (as well as my sibs and cousins and their spouses) passed a common love of sports, both participation and being a spectator, on to our children. For a time, four generations shared the same appreciation and language. The last thing my husband, son, and I ever did with my Daddy was watch a Mets game. They won.

    Erynn, if you’re weird, so am I. I love to watch the human or animal form in motion; any well-practiced, refined motion. Who decided that in dance there is grace and beauty, but not in cutting off the ball at shortstop and throwing the runner out at first all in one fluid motion? In my book they are equally graceful.

    To Erynn’s observation about equestrian events, I’ve logged a few hours on horseback. To be aware that you’re not so much controlling all that amazing power but that the horse is allowing you to control its actions is humbling, as is feeling the strength in the muscles moving beneath you. The connection you see is trust (and a shared center of gravity). Would you trust me if I pointed your head at a 3-foot-high brick wall, urged you to jump over it though you didn’t know what was on the other side, and I did this sitting on your back? When a horse and rider are airborne, there’s a silence that you pray isn’t broken by the tell-tale sound of a hoof brushing the jump, the rattle of a rail in a cup, or worse, the dead thunk of a rail hitting the ground. Each jump is separate yet seamlessly part of the whole course. Youandthehorse, the ground under you, the next jump, and the clock is all that exists for a short time.

    In riding, it’s the skill and subtle communication of the pair. When I pull back on a rein and press my leg into the horse’s side, he must be able to recognize the meaning of my movements. Likewise, I must be able to recognize a shift in the horse’s movement that tells me he’s not aligned for the next move. There is skill and the ability to discern nuance both above and below the saddle. Riding is a team sport even when you’re just blasting across an open field for the fun of it and for me it’s there I see just how intimately intertwined we are with all around us.

    Pardon while I put the soapbox away.

    Keep on livin’, lovin’, and laughin’,

  5. Pete says:

    Dear Karen,

    Thanks for your great note—and astute comment about the same ones who vilified Lee will be writing the history. Being the only rational vote, who will come to really glorify what she did, which by her words is so not radical.

    As for sports, I fear what I’ve written and quoted has come out sounding different than my intention. I’ve just been reading a lot about certain undercurrents of how they evolved historically or what happens within the game—or the virtually no safety-net in boxing etc—comments or insights that I find intriguing and reminding.

    I mean the idea that because sports were so egalitarian—so counter-class—that certain restrainst on said egality—is so fascinating to me:

    Thus the “role model,” that incubus on the back of so many sporting champions, was born out of a need to tame the democracy of sport. It was a means of neutralizing its sublime indifference to social status.

    I just never thought of that. One forgets how in control owners were of their “stable” in sports, virtually until those crazy late sixties and early ’70s. Ken Dryden (of Understanding Ken fame!) literally didn’t really say he was sitting out the year because he wasn’t getting paid enough—but that was the major part of the reason, from what I understand.

    Imagine not saying that now! I think 3/4s of NBA players are Republican. That shows exactly where they believe lie.

    But as you so eloquently put it, I too am just draw-dropped by human athelticism—even on steroids!—and sports and activities across the board are essential for the human body to stay fluid.

    We have to move. But to rephrase Jerry Seinfold, to the sitting spectator: “We didn’t work out. They worked out! We watched!”

    I’m really just dropping food for thought. I mean, I’ve been watching boxing lately for my research. Ali in the mid ’60s, while punching people, was poetry. He reinvented the sport. Bobby Orr literaly reinvented what it meant to be a defencemen in Hockey.

    These people have what they call siddhis among yogis—perfected abilities. It’s stunning—and people really do just follow their propensities, sometimes to stunning results. But I mean only to stimulate “Ah-has.” Going to a hockey game with my nephew when he was eight is like wearing a whole new set of glasses on the world.

    And your Mets memory with your dad is beautiful.

    And although I am no longer a fanatic in sports per se (oh yeah, I sneak a peek at the scores for reasons I don’t even understand!, I still carry that fantic instinct into other areas.

    Vive le body! Vive the competition! Vive the joy! Vive a little more awareness surrounding it all!

    And I loved both of your descriptions of horses. I’ve ridden twice, bucked once, but a spiritual teacher
    /friend of mine has often spoken of literally, when he road Arabian horses, surrendering to their energy.

    Remarkabe. Beautiful. MYstical. We are a system. We are what we are, manifesting consciousness in myriad, remarkable ways, from families to sports teams.

    And now I have to do a little breathing, stretching, core work, to keep my wonderfully sensitive back in order.

    Kisses all round,

    Pete xoxo

  6. A W Fisher says:

    Hello Mr. McCormack,
    well – Barbara Lee has a chance for a place in history – for more than one reason:
    First: You and others -too few, I have to add- understood the value of Barbara Lee’s courageous decision. And made sure she’s on “on record” for the foreseeable future. Thanks for that.
    Second: Sadly, ost American’s were too much enraged to come to wiser decisions – allthough grieving – than to wage war against some other villain, who had a well established record of gruelling sins (some of the on behalf of US politics) – but who had nothing to do with 9-11. But millions of people outside the U.S. understood that rage, grieve, military strength, money and the zeal to maintain world leadership are bad advisors in such a admittedly difficult situation in the aftermath of 9-11. They have made and will make sure, that Barbara Lee’s courage will be remembered and might give an example for the future.
    Third: Well, many U.S. citizins had to learn it the hard way -and millions elsewhere had to suffer much worse- that the Bush reaction was a bad one, to say the least. Silly would be more appropriate. We Germans had our opportunity to learn, how frenzies in society start and work their ways – and we screwed up as well.
    But finally – and that is one of the reassuring thoughts- they got it. A slow learning, since it took too many years and a Bush-re-election. But they avoided the temptation to elect the next warrior for president.
    A final remark that might stir up worries again: Is it really accidental, that the only opposing vote was a “black” one – if you allow the term for the moment. And that the majority of white voters in the presidential election voted for McCain?

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