Concerning Football and Competitive Behavior

Last evening, the Texas–Alabama football game evoked impassioned feelings everywhere, especially from the city of Austin. I could see the excitement building everywhere. I would not consider myself a football fanatic, but I must admit that this game was intense. All year I watched like two college football games, and this was one of them. It showed just how people could become so competitive-minded, and yet, at the same time, still show exemplary sportsmanship. I use this as the springboard for today’s topic—competitive behavior.

What sparked this inquiry was Jooyeon’s blog post (on Tumblr) yesterday, before the game started, asking why there was so much hype:

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m like dying from school right now. I just can’t get myself to focus or motivate myself to do well. And it makes me really wonder how I survived last year when I had so many other things on my plate. I think I might crash right after I finish this post.

Anyways, so tonight is the National Championship game, and my Facebook newsfeed is gonna be flooded with statuses about the game. Man, that’s gonna be annoying. I really don’t give a crap about football. People are making such a big deal about this, like it’s gonna be the end of their lives if UT doesn’t win tonight. And it’s kind of ridiculous. There are good citizens on both sides but people are treating this like war. You know, if I happened to be living in Alabama right now, it’d be the exact same case except with Alabama. And people also hurt each other in football. They hurt each other big time. Why would you cheer and cry out of happiness when you have just witnessed someone physically hurting someone else? I know “it’s fun” and all, but I guess the spirit of football has never really soaked into me. I’m aware that I am sort of being a hypocrite right now, because I’ve cried about many things other people wouldn’t give a crap about. So I guess it’s all about perspective. I apologize for my lack of spirit, but for me it looks like tonight’s just going to be another normal school night.

I agree—I’m not a huge supporter of football either. I watched the game because it was something out of the ordinary for me. It also might have been the last major Texas football game I ever watch while in Austin. I enjoyed it. But afterwards, I thought about your post, and realized that what underlies the hype is not the little details, but the big picture.

If we view the game as a bunch of large men running into each other and one of them holding a football, we won’t get very far. But that’s what football is! So why is it so popular, so fanatical, so compelling? The answer, I found, concerns competitive behavior.

Football is full of it. In fact, the hype for just about any competitive game, from football, to StarCraft, to chess, though varying in degree from game to game, rests upon the nature of human behavior.

But this behavior among humans (i.e. competitive behavior) was not originally for winning games amongst themselves; rather, it was for survival amongst nature’s hostilities. Because of this relationship with the surrounding environment, competition among early humans was not competition for the sake of competition, but rather, competition for the sake of life. So we weren’t consciously competitive—our intentions were just to live—but our actions gave the appearance of competition. In other words, in evolution, competition was an emergent property, and not a phenomenon in itself.

Humans changed that. Sure, we initially fought for our survival. But in early agricultural societies that created sufficiencies and surpluses, we began competing for other items besides food. Any survey of ancient civilization will tell you that. Times changed. By the Egyptian era, we had developed not only an appetite for tangible materials, but also knowledge. Fast forward again, and you have the Greeks, who greatly developed mathematics, history, philosophy, and politics.

Leap ahead, and we loom in the shadows of the Dark Ages. Competitions among religions were extreme. The Islamic expansions and the Christian Crusades demonstrated the use of war not as an instrument of survival, but as an instrument to spread divine beliefs. These were competitions of ideologies.

Jump again, this time to the Renaissance. Machiavelli is the prime point of investigation here. “The ends justify the means.” That changed the world. It might not be so true right now, as for a modern leader seeking power, almost each one of these “means” is closely followed and made public, but nonetheless, Machiavelli was the acknowledgment that competition was the ultimate war.

Today we find boundless examples of competition. Games (as aforementioned) are competitions. Politics is virtually a competition. The business world is an enormous competition. School, in many places (ahem), is a competition. Football games seem mild in comparison. Sure, they attract hundreds of thousands of fans, but the impacts of their results are undoubtedly nowhere near as relevant as those in politics or business.

Football is, of course, more entertaining than other competitions. It is a symbol of the human experience, for there are many lessons to be learned from it—yesterday’s game especially. The maxim of the game: Don’t give up. After losing Colt McCoy, and subsequently being 18 points down after the first half, Texas and its fans had every reason in the world to make excuses, blame Garrett Gilbert, or a combination of the two. The players must have been at a huge morale loss—they were against the number one ranked team, and they lost their star quarterback. What could they do? They could have given up, but instead, they fought as hard as they could, and nearly managed to bring back the game. They showed everyone that even if they lost, they lost it in style.

That is the essence of the big-picture perspective. In detail, football consists people running around on a giant field, but of course, there is much more it than that. In it, the highly-praised values of teamwork, dedication, sportsmanship are always there. It gives a sense of identity. It generates the feeling of community. It creates awe. For me, I don’t watch football very often, but I did learn something last night: The spirit of competition is greater than the competition itself.

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