Which is all a long way of saying that I think that we profoundly underestimate the importance of sports in our culture. I am often told—by progressives and “post-liberal” conservatives alike—that the classical-liberal worldview that I hold is too hollow to survive because, while it creates space for different sorts of people, it doesn’t believe in anything itself. I disagree with this assessment for many reasons, but the most important among them is that it spectacularly misses the point. The American system of government is not supposed to be the source of meaning in people’s lives; it’s supposed to provide a framework within which people can find meaning without being subjugated by the predilections of other people. That being so, the threat is not that the government will remain assiduously neutral and bore everyone into totalitarianism, but that, having been given the chance to take part in a host of unmolested institutions, the citizenry will politely decline to do so. When figures such as myself are asked which institutions we have in mind, we often rattle off a familiar list: families, churches, charities, book clubs, etc. But, perhaps because it sounds frivolous, we tend to leave out sports. We shouldn’t. Sports are a key source of meaning, and, more important still, they serve as a safe outlet for some of the least pleasant sides of human nature.
I agree with Cooke’s classical liberalism, but I’d go further and give voice to a thought that I’ve only considered in a unfocused way up until now: I think the whole point of life is to play, to be silly. Yes, of course, there’s all sorts of serious work that needs to be done first, so that we don’t starve or freeze, but I think humans have done a pretty good job of accomplishing that. Once all that is secured, though, it’s time to pretend. That might mean we pretend fictional characters in movies or books are real for a couple hours, or we pretend that it’s vitally important that the men in red shirts throw or kick the ball to one end of the field before the men in white shirts get it to the opposite end, or we pretend that we’re fighting in World War 2 by pressing buttons on a controller in front of our television. Even animals understand this. My dog certainly is concerned to make sure his bowl has food in it twice a day and that the perimeter is free of unauthorized intruders, but he’s never happier than when we sit on the floor, rolling his ball around the room for him to chase, pretending to desperately want it back from him while he pretends to warn us away from it.
I asked the Lady of the House what percentage of our daily conversations consists of inside jokes or other forms of silliness, and she suggested 70%. Seems reasonable enough to me. At the very least, you might say that the majority of our dialogue is an extended exercise in creative writing. Puns, allusions, zingers, bombast, anything but straightforward talk. It seems like one of the defining characteristics of your most intimate relationships is the amount of time you spend in a shared fantasy world, where little is exactly as it appears.