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The Aesthetics of Sports

April 26th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In reflecting on the relationship between story and the rules of the game, Brian Phillips writes:

What that means is that, if we care about the sport as a story, we have to hope that the people in charge of running it do their jobs just badly enoughto ensure that the Hand of God is possible. The wider the circle within which you’re willing to see the game as aesthetic, in other words, the more you wind up relying on chance and accident. If soccer is only a game—that is, aesthetic only in the most limited and technical sense—then it can achieve perfection as a deliberate design or as a successfully realized intention. If it’s a story—that is, aesthetic in a more primary sense—it can’t. If you want a masterpiece, the artist has to screw up. The lamest defense of bad refereeing in the world is “human error is part of the game.” It isn’t; but it is certainly, and problematically, part of the story.

The whole piece is provocative, and must be read in its entirety.

I’m intrigued by the idea, but not persuaded.  It seems that incorporating an official’s error as an essential part of any sports narrative is possible only ad hoc.  Had the play been appropriately called, the game wouldn’t have been stripped of its broader storylines–it simply would have had a different ending, and a different meaning.

In a sense, the games that have the most force as narratives are not those where officials are conspicuous either for their rigid formalism or their blown calls.  There will always be a subjective element to officiating, but in its best forms it is a self-effacing practice.  When it keeps people within the rules, it does so not at the expense of the narrative, but to preserve its integrity:  to ensure that the contest between teams isn’t resolved by a deus ex officianda, but rather is an organic development from the characters themselves within the limits they have imposed upon themselves by taking the particular stage they have chosen.

And on this score, the Miracle on Ice is the appropriate counterexample to the Hand of God goal.  No less meaningful, it was memorable in part for the lack of controversial officiating, which preserved the critical possibility of fairness.  And fairness is a possibility intrinsic to the particular sorts of story that sports points to.

But here, too, we stand looking in retrospective.

And that’s the crucial point.  Whatever we make of the importance of bad referring to the narrative of the game, that narrative is only clear from the standpoint of history.  Both bad officiating and good officiating take their meaning–like everything else–in the eschaton, in the final resolution of the game, both in itself and in its relationship to its broader cultural context.