We are constantly being warned to check with our physicians before beginning athletics. Play and games evidently can be risky business. What we are not told are the risks of not beginning athletics-that the most dangerous sport of all is watching it from the stands.
The weakest among us can become some kind of athlete, but only the strongest can survive as spectators. Only the hardiest can withstand the perils of inertia, inactivity, and immobility. Only the most resilient can cope with the squandering of time, the deterioration in fitness, the loss of creativity, the frustration of emotions, and the dulling of moral sense that can afflict the dedicated spectator.
Physiologists have suggested that only those who can pass the most rigorous physical examination can safely follow the sedentary life. Man was not made to remain at rest. Inactivity is completely unnatural to the body. And what follows is a breakdown of the body's equilibrium.
When the beneficial effects of activity on the heart and circulation and indeed on all the body's systems are absent, everything measurable begins to go awry.
Up goes the girth of the waist and the body weight. Up goes blood pressure and heart rate. Up goes cholesterol and triglycerides. Up goes everything you would like to go down and down everything you would like to go up. Down goes vital capacity and oxygen consumption. Down goes flexibility and efficiency, stamina and strength. Fitness fast becomes a memory.
The seated spectator is not a thinker, he is a knower. Unlike the athlete who is still seeking his own experience, who leaves himself open to truth, the spectator has closed the ring. His thinking has become rigid knowing. He has enclosed himself in bias and partisanship and prejudice. He has ceased to grow.
And it is growth he needs most to handle the emotions thrust upon him, emotions he cannot act out in any satisfactory way. He is , you see, an incurable distance from the athlete and participation in the effort is the athlete's release, the athlete's catharsis. He is watching people who have everything he wants and cannot get. They are having all the fun: the fun of playing, the fun of winning, even the fun of losing. They are having the physical exhaustion which is the quickest way to fraternity and equality, the exhaustion which permits you to be not only a good winner but a good loser.
Because the spectator cannot experience what the athlete is experiencing, the fan is seldom a good loser. The emphasis on winning is therefore much more of a problem for the spectator than the athlete. The losing fan, filled with emotions which have no healthy outlet, is likely to take it out on his neighbor, the nearest inanimate object, the umpires, the stadium or the game itself. It is easier to dry out a drunk, take someone off hard drugs or watch a three-pack-a-day smoker go cold turkey than live with a fan during a long losing streak.
Should a spectator pass all these physical and mental and emotional tests, he still has another supreme challenge to his integrity. He is part of a crowd, part of a mob. He is with those the coach in The Games called, "The nothingmen, those oafs in the stands filling their bellies." And when someone is in a crowd, out go his individual standards of conduct and morality. He acts in concert with his fellow spectators and descends two or three rungs on the evolutionary ladder. He slips backward down the development tree.
From the moment you become a spectator, everything is downhill.