I am not a sports fan nor do I like basketball, and I sometimes find it hard to understand the market and culture that surround college sports. However, in what I hope is a result of my increasing maturity and not my new softness of mind or spirit, I am starting to see just what value it might have to society. I volunteered working concessions for two such basketball games recently (the volunteer’s hourly wages are donated to a community service club), and as a result I was trying to understand the sociology of sports.
In my natural tendency toward cynicism, a nearly empty basketball stadium (are they even called stadiums?) can make me very sad and sorry for society. All the investment of money, time, ideas, design, all the training and hope on behalf of the players and the families, all the lonely people who are fans of a team who is clearly at the end of an era of greatness sends strains of melancholy Beatles songs in my concession-stand-bound ears. It is hard for me to grasp that anyone’s life is made better by wasting hedonistic amounts of money on food, or clothing, or other merchandise that is specifically designed to make the purchaser feels a certain way that, even when effective, so swiftly fades. Though I was volunteering and my sales statistics hardly mattered, I felt myself willing our would-be customers elsewhere, thinking at them, “Please don’t walk up here. I don’t want to have to rip you off. I can’t make you happy.” I didn’t want to support the corporate-giant sponsor whose products we were shilling at what felt like a billion percent mark-up, to support or condone the kind of consumer manipulation that makes me so sad for what my history professor calls “the American market society.” It puts an ache in my heart to see good, hard-working Americans putting their hard-earned wages into making a giant trans-fat merchant more giant and fat, to watch the people watching the game and see a tiny bit of their hard-bitten, hard-knock, just plain hard lives.
But in the many hours I spent providing the hard-core basketball fans who came out for the 9:30pm tip off with all-American eats, I realized a few things in what were epiphanies probably to me alone. When we arrived several hours before the game to inventory our stand, I met some very nice people whose entire life is spent in the sodium-and-sugar shanty that I had but a one-night sojourn in. They work for the corporate-giant sponsor who is the very definition of “the man”, selling semi-unsuspecting fans popcorn and peanuts and momentary bliss for the low, low price of five dollars a popcorn kernel. But in what was a miracle only in my failure to realize it, they were real, well-intentioned people, just doing what they can to get by. I had been tricked into the romantic deception that soft-drink conglomerates are run by some group of crazy suits trying to rip off the world and steal all our money and clog all our arteries – and maybe they are. But these companies employ the little people, the real people, the people who fix soda machines and pop popcorn and get a little thrill out of a well-played game of basketball, making it possible for them to support their families, live their lives, pursue their own happinesses. All the people who designed the stadium, whose ideas, construction, advertising, training, coaching, recruiting, or other blood, sweat or tears go into that stadium or that team are probably good, honest people too. Though I am not naïve enough to think that any of it was done for anything other than the bottom line, I am also more certain that none of it was done with malicious intent. An infinite number of peoples’ livelihoods are created by the basketball culture, and it’s hardly the most depraved social phenomenon that supports families. And all those red-and-blue clad fans, who cheer so fervently for the team, who spend so generously for a snack at halftime, are hardly expecting to find enlightenment between free-throws and rebounds. They are probably just regular people, getting to forget for a bit just how hard life is, experiencing a tiny bit of nirvana in their team’s valiant bid for the win. As I sold a tub of popcorn to a man who still goes to every game his alma mater plays 48 years after he graduated, or to a father brought his physically and mentally handicapped son to enjoy some ‘guy time’, or to any of the people who wanted nothing from me but something to quench their thirst, I began to understand a tiny bit about life. The people involved in the basketball stadium aren’t trying to rip anyone off, just trying to do what’s right by them. The people involved in concessions have no malicious intent, they’re just trying bring in a paycheck for an honest day’s work, no matter how giant their employer. And the people who attend late-night college basketball games aren’t expecting to get or even looking to find enlightenment. They are hoping to remember their glory days, or spend time with their families, or just forget about their problems for a while by placing their hopes in a few promising young players. As it has taken me so long to realize, finding the meaning of life isn’t about broad strokes, taking down the man, enjoyment as only I can see it, or happily ever after. For normal, regular, real people, at least for a night, meaning --and perhaps even a taste of happiness -- can be found in the squeak and swish of a well-played game of basketball.
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