Every once in a while I will strive to post something thoughtful and well-written. I often find myself thinking too much, and today is no exception. The wonderful piece “Think Big, Be Free, Have Sex… 10 Reasons to be an Existentialist,” in the Guardian by Sarah Bakewell got me thinking about the other in professional sports and who the “they” that gets outraged at every little arrest is. Or who is “they” that gets disappointed in a player’s bad behavior. I had never heard of Heidegger’s concept of das Man that Bakewell describes as translated to “the they.” This semantic observation was one which I had never considered before, but before we delve into what this means in professional sports we must first look more deeply at why this small semantic observation matters.
First, das Man appears to be a concept of “The Other,” something the fascist in Heidegger would have been well acquainted with. What is “The Other?” Well, it’s best to show examples of it. To the Nazis the other would be Jews and Communists. To the Soviet Regime it would have been capitalists. To Homophobes it is gay people, and so on and so forth. Basically, if someone takes all of their fear, loathing, and insecurity and projects it onto an outside group. This is “the other.”
So, who is the that elusive “they” we talk about in sports and how does it relate to the “other?” Often it’s a definable group. But what if we say “Everyone is disappointed in Josh Gordon for smoking pot?” That statement is a falsity. I am actually disappointed in the NFL’s drug policy, not Josh Gordon. So how does Josh Gordon become the other for an unknowable group of people?
First off, there is a role which technology plays. It’s so easy to become outraged in speech, but not in action that people post their raw thoughts online much too often. But for anyone observing sports or society or anything really, raw thoughts are too raw to be palatable. These thoughts get thrown into a big old mess on the internet and many media personalities think that what they are reading is the actual public opinion. Public opinion is best understood through surveys, polls, etc., but hardly through a twitter search. Why? Well, if 10 people buy a product and are contented with it, but there is an 11th person who hates the product, then the 11th person will have the loudest voice. The same applies for people who are so in love with something. While there are issues that are divisive and seen almost exclusively through black and white (say Aaron Hernandez being a murderer, it’s not a good thing) it is very different than the standard issues at hand. Why do moralists get to decide whether smoking pot was a correct or incorrect decision? It appears that he didn’t hurt anyone doing it, so this is not the black and white issue that a murder would have brought about.
Now that we don’t know who “they” are when we make these statements, why does it matter? Because it directly influences conversation about a topic, particularly in the media, where almost all of our information about sports is gleaned from. Instead of going out and attending press conferences from your favorite team, we watch the sports report on TV or read the sports section of the newspaper (or more likely favorite blog). When people begin to use the statements about das Man on television people listen because it sounds like public opinion even if it is not. It helps to maintain the power and structure of sports leagues. Would a competitor to the NFL be bad for its business? Absolutely. So we hear statements like “they are thinking about changing the rules for catching,” which seems innocent enough, but who are they? A committee of billionaires? Coaches? Referees? You would have to dig quite deep to find that information. And most people will not do it. These vague generalizations eventually turn into the public opinion because it was thought to be the public opinion. There are many examples of this, but the one I would most like to know is who are these people that keep asking stupid questions at the combine? They’re obviously out of touch with the times and/or reality. But instead of knowing it was the scout for this team or that team, it is a “they.” And it is mostly likely to save face for all involved. But is this kind of hiding worth not being honest? That is a question everyone must answer for themselves.
As you can see there are many permutations that das Man takes in professional sports, and I believe that this article is just touching on the surface of some of these concepts. Why does this even matter? Because even in sports truth must be valued. Misinformation and hidden details create false opinions and perceptions which may in reality be very simple. These kinds of issues create a landscape in which we cannot trust the media, players, coaches, scouts, etc. to deliver any kind of reliable information. This is sensible when it creates a competitive advantage from an organization’s standpoint, but it makes little sense at all when it is being disseminated by the media except in light that these media outlets have huge contracts with the league and also stand to lose in the event that unsavory topics and opinions are allowed to see the light of day.
In conclusion, we all must become more aware of the conception of das Man to prevent ourselves from misjudging people and putting imaginary groups or specific individuals into the realm of the other. If we allow ourselves to be played for fools by these messages from others and from within ourselves, then we will not be able to reach the most thoughtful opinion that is closest to our own personal truths/beliefs that is possible. When we begin to question these statements we begin to journey closer to the truth. And how could that possibly be bad when sports help to employ so many people. Irrefutably, it turns everyone who plays them (and perhaps watches them) into the person that they are today. Maybe you wouldn’t have met a spouse without football? Maybe it allowed you to become friends with someone you never would have had much else to talk to with? Perhaps it allowed you to have an amazing experience at a game? This is why sports matter, and this is why das Man matters.