Monday, July 12, 2010

The Sports Metaphor

There’s no question that sports bring us economic, social and cultural benefits. Sports also bring un-intended economic, social and cultural side effects and difficulties, beyond the bread and circuses effect, that are too often ignored, pooh-poohed, down played or actively suppressed. The sports metaphor is the most dangerous of these un-intended side-effects.

A metaphor is simply understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. For example, the seargeant barked out the order, makes us think of the seargeant as a vicious dog. Metaphors serve to facilitate the understanding of one conceptual domain, typically an abstract one like 'life' or 'theories' or 'ideas', through expressions that relate to another, more familiar conceptual domain, typically a more concrete one like 'journey' or 'buildings' or 'food'. For example, “the game of life” implyies that life is like a game, usually some kind of sport. More examples:

Food for thought: we devour a book of raw facts, try to digest them, stew over them, let them simmer on the back-burner, regurgitate them in discussions, cook up explanations, hoping they do not seem half-baked. Theories as buildings: we establish a foundation for them, a framework, support them with strong arguments, buttressing them with facts, hoping they will stand. Life as journey: some of us travel hopefully, others seem to have no direction, many lose their way.

Metaphors are colorful, exciting and thus more mememorable and have greater impact. Using a metaphor, the communicator puts ideas or objects into word containers, then sends them to a listener who takes that idea or object out of the container and makes meaning of it. The container is separate from the ideas themselves. Because metaphors can communicate a great deal of meaning with just a word or phrase, they can encourage people to reflect, think and question or they can encourage people to stop thinking and think they understand when they really don’t. For example, life as a sports game – “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”; “he who dies with the most toys, wins”. Great ways to think about living, right? About raising a family, loving your spouse, building a community?

A metaphor is a comparison that shows how two things not alike in most ways, are similar in another important way. Metaphors are pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but also in thought and action. The most powerful metaphors deal with vital, abstract difficult to communicate experiences and operate below the level of conscious thought to be accepted as Truth, unchallenged and un-critically.

The sports metaphor is a popular, powerful metaphor embeded deeply in our collective unconsious. It has some value but in most cases it reduces difficult, complex life challenges and opportunities to oversimplified cliches. Instead of encouraging people to reflect, think and question their own lives and how society is working, the sports metaphor encourages people to stop thinking and think they understand when they really don’t. Among other things, the sports metaphor, especially the glitzy glamorous big bucks pro sports metaphor, encourages people to see and experience life as a spectator sport, un-involved, watching from a distance.

For example under the dominance of the sports metaphor, democratic politics is not about actually voting, “my vote doesn’t count,” just like rooting for your team in the stadium or in front of the TV doesn’t count. It’s not about the substance of the debate or the real challenges and opportunities we need our democratically elected leaders to deal with, it’s surfacy bull shit about who’s winning and who’s losing and why. On the job for example, everyone gives lip service to team work because teamwork is critical and does matter in sports, but in real life the ‘teams’ if there are any, are not like the sports teams but more diffuse and inner directed. There is no coach and no referee and the playing field is not level. There’s only you and whatever you think God is.

Many people work real hard to make the sports metaphor reality and they feel like failures when real life intrudes. It’s not your fault real life is the way it is, no matter how much you wish it was like a pro-sports game that you could ‘win,’ (in a ‘sportsman-like’ way, of course, no cheating), claim your prize and go home victorious, it’s not that way. Life doesn’t end after the season’s over. You have to live it out moment by moment, day after day, month after month, year after year until you die. And, according to some religions, it may not even be over then, when you die.

The sports metaphor has a place, but it’s a limitted place. Wouldn’t our individual, community, national and international lives be better if we became aware of the effects the sports metaphor has on our lives, controlled for those effects, sought out and used other metaphors to deal with our challenges and opportunities? How about, “life is just a bowl of cherries”….?

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