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I’ve started writing a weekly series called Game of the Week: The View From England on US college football this season.  Aside from the inherent hilarity of me giving my opinions on a sport which I only played very briefly (we’re talking like two weeks briefly) as an undergraduate, I’m hoping to use it to think about the connections between sport and performance, and the way we imagine both.

Sports are one of those activities which theatre and performance studies often define themselves against.  I can think of at least two introductory chapters which begin by listing kinds of “performance” (that of athletes, engines, stock markets) before clearing them away to focus on performances within theatre, television and film.  That clearing away can be a bit hasty, though.  Our instincts and our habits of thought when watching sport can broaden our sense of what we mean by performance.  A couple of times I’ve been trying to explain the idea that meaning is created in performance, and discuss how we might analyze that, and the students I was teaching kept wanting to move straight from general impressions to abstract or moral conclusions.  A yellow shirt probably meant the girl was happy; when she has the hula hoop around her the director is symbolising the constraints society puts on people, and so on.  (Those who have taken English Lit A-level within the last decade or so might recognize the attitude.)  It wasn’t until I introduced the idea of watching sport that they became more comfortable discussing performance, physical signs and systems of meaning on their own terms, without immediately translating them into verbal or conceptual “messages” which could be paraphrased and explained away.  With the analogy of tennis or US football, they found it easier to see the systems at work and – after all, what does “15-40” or “volleying to the backhand” mean?  It means one thing in terms of the rules of the game, another thing in practice depending on who is playing and what we know about their style, yet another if it’s in the opening stages of a tournament or in the last set of the final…

Sports also fascinate me as apparently closed systems which nonetheless bear an enormous burden of moral, social and historical interpretation.  Games might be codified and described in terms of points, boundaries and equipment, but they’re watched in terms of “effort”, “inventiveness”, “laziness”, “tradition” and “disgrace”.  The critic Dana Stephens has described herself as “aphasic when it comes to games”: she doesn’t enjoy watching or playing any sports (or even games like draughts.)  She is constantly aware that when the match is over, someone will have won, someone will have lost, and it will have made no difference to anyone in the grander scheme of things.  Stephens’ inability to suspend her indifference for the length of a quick game of snakes and ladders surprised me, because it made me think about why we don’t all feel like that.

Sports – even more than highly conventional art forms – are apparently complete within themselves, and fulfil their own terms.  They make no overt claim to meaning outside their own scoring system and number of rounds.  Yet Stephens’ amusement at how seriously everyone else takes sport reminds us that almost no-one watches a game simply to discover what the score will be.  A friend of mine underlined this when she was recovering from an illness, and the doctor told her to rest on the sofa as much as possible, remarking that she was lucky it was Wimbledon that month.  Of course my friend ended up furious, as she discovered that she was unable to watch the tennis simply as a calming distraction whilst she convalesced.  Even when turning on a game between two unknowns from countries she’d barely heard of, she found that within five minutes she’d picked a side and was passionately willing one of them onto victory.  No Wimbledon for her that year – at least only short bursts of watching which left her exhausted and groggy.

On a larger scale, we seem incapable of watching and discussing sport without ascribing moral and artistic qualities to the patterns of the game.  We take it as reasonable that someone should say a team “deserved” to win, but how can you deserve to win a game?  Logically, you only deserve to win if you have fulfilled the technical requirements (scoring more points, brushing a more correct amount of ice, jumping higher over replicas of London landmarks), but we accept the sudden intrusion of moral categories into a sporting discussion because we instinctively know that watching sport is not about how precisely the parameters have been carried out.  Indeed maybe I’ve got it the wrong way round.  Maybe we shouldn’t talk of heritage, morality and judgement being imposed on the score of a game – maybe we should think of these as forces waiting to find a suitable outlet, and being channelled into the rough shape of a game’s rules.  Either way, spectatorship consists of building narratives, recalling past examples (whether from the 1930s or the last lineout this team sodded up), apportioning blame and unleashing jeremiads.

So I think our instincts about sports can provide some insights which may expand our notion of performance.  Such as the fact that even activities which claim to have no communicative function or semantic content are inevitably interpreted via custom, morality and aesthetics.  Or the ways in which meaning flows and sticks through a system of performance conventions which is even more arbitrary and disconnected from “real life” than theatre of film. And I think performance studies can also provide some ideas for reflecting on spectatorship in sports.  Marvin Carlson’s discussion of “performance” itself comes up with the notion of “doubleness”, that watching a performance involves seeing two images in front of oneself – whether that’s an actor and a character or the physical action of serving and the parameters of the court.  He cites Bauman to the effect that “all performance involves a consciousness of doubleness, according to which the actual execution of an action in placed in mental comparison with a potential, an ideal or a remembered original model of that action”.This concept of performance allows us to see the links between the idea as applied to, say, an impersonation of a celebrity, an interpretation of a classical Shakespeare role, the 0-60mph acceleration rate of a new sports car and an attempt at a high jump record.  Even when not being specifically measured or quantified, a comparison is being implicitly made with an imagined model or other “presence” alongside what is taking place.

The challenge Auslander’s idea poses to us as sports spectators is this: what is the other presence alongside what we’re watching?  What standards, or imagined models, are we using to evaluate and intepret what’s on the field, and where did we get them?  I think this is particularly pertinent – or at least particularly insistent – when watching college football.  In one column I flagged up the way college athletes are described as “kids”, particularly struck by a commentator’s remark that Chris Thompson was not only a great running back but a “really good kid”.  A lot of the language surrounding college athletes is oddly patronising and admiring at the same time, and I suggested in that piece that the ideal against which Thompson was being measured was not a talented person with agency, but someone who reacted apropriately and gratefully to the forces exerted upon them.  When he “performs” as a running back, what role and even what character do we assume he is performing along with that position?

The other presence on the field may be a historical one: when the Oklahoma Sooners play, their name proclaims them as descendents of the early settlers in the state.  An ammendment to the Indian Appropriations Bill in 1889 allowed anyone to claim tracts of the “Unassigned Lands”, and the Sooners were those who set off earlier than the generally decreed date.  The SoonerSports website links the name with a progressive, “can-do” spirit of enterprise, supposedly embodied in the attitude of the team.  When fans shout “Boomer!  Sooner!”, they invoke a group of people in the past whom the present players are being exhorted to compare themselves.  Though those with a different view of history might see another set of qualities exemplified in the past owners of the name, and frame differently the attempt to “live up to” that other presence on the field.

This is obviously just one aspect of the way in which sports and performance studies overlap, and in which they might illuminate each other.  I’ll no doubt be writing future pieces on the nature of spectatorship, and I’d be very glad to hear people’s opinions in the comments below.