Sunday, May 28, 2006

The art of sport

By Matthew McGough Home > News > Boston Globe > Ideas May 21, 2006
WHEN QUARTERBACK DOUG FLUTIE announced his retirement from football on Monday, news reports invariably included footage of his 1984 Boston College Hail Mary pass, widely considered to be one of the most dramatic college football plays of all time. Across the country, replays of the ''Miracle in Miami" were punctuated with the ''boo-yah!"-style color commentary that, for better or worse, now seems to characterize most sports programming. Not that Flutie's heave isn't worthy of hyperbole; 21 years later, it's still thrilling to behold. But underlying the cries of ''en fuego!" or ''straight butta" (or whatever catch phrase is currently in fashion at ESPN) is another, calmer term, that might be used to describe this and other great sports moments of the highest order: beautiful, in the philosophical sense of the word.

So argues Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a professor of literature at Stanford University, in his new book ''In Praise of Athletic Beauty" (Harvard). Gumbrecht laments that most contemporary academic analyses of ''sport" as a cultural phenomenon tend to be socially patronizing, dismissive of sports fans as having fallen for a modern-day version of the old bread and circus treatment. Such thinkers, he argues, ''find it difficult to admit that the fascination with sports can have respectable roots in the realm of aesthetic appeal" more typically associated with the so-called high arts. Conditioned to look for aesthetic pleasure in a concert hall or museum, we fail to recognize that watching a tense seventh game of the World Series (or a championship fight or a 100-meter dash) might be considered a legitimate aesthetic experience as well.
To ground his argument, Gumbrecht turns to that staple of sports bar disputation, Immanuel Kant's ''Critique of Judgment." At the center of Kant's writings on aesthetics is his conception of the ''beautiful" as paradoxically related to ''purposiveness." The paradox, as recounted by Gumbrecht, is that although ''something does not need to have a purpose in order to be beautiful. . .whatever we find beautiful looks as if it had a purpose." A triple axel or bicycle kick or 6-4-3 double play clearly have no function outside the arena or off the field. And yet, writes Gumbrecht, such actions give a distinct ''impression of purposiveness." They are beautiful to behold because they appear both carefully calibrated and perfectly natural.
Gumbrecht employs another of Kant's theories of aesthetics, ''subjective universality," to address the communal aspects of sports spectatorship: How it is that certain sports moments (the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle, USA hockey's triumph at the Lake Placid Olympics, Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World) come to be recognized by individual fans as particularly worthy of canonization, a collective judgment of beauty that coalesces and only deepens with time. Subjective universality-the sense that ''our individual acts of aesthetic judgment always imply the expectation, perhaps even the invitation, for everybody to agree"-may explain why a diverse stadium crowd will gasp as one in response to an acrobatic alley-oop or an improbably converted flea-flicker.
Of course, Kant, who died in 1804, wouldn't have known an alley-oop from a hole in the ground, and Gumbrecht doesn't mention whether he was much of a sports fan. In any event, there's more to appreciating beauty in sports than what Kant offers: Clearly, the beauty of a play also depends on the circumstances in which it was made. This is why DVD compilations like ''404 Great Soccer Goals" and their brethren are so unsatisfying to watch all the way through; without context, the disembodied plays feel like nothing more than sports pornography. Kirk Gibson's home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series is revered by baseball fans not because it was so beautiful in and of itself; the play's aesthetic clout comes from the knowledge that Gibson hit it cold off the bench, on a bum leg, against a future Hall of Fame pitcher, and that no one had hit a come-from-behind, game-winning home run in a World Series ever before.