“Ahh!” screamed the player as he fell to the ice in pain. I gritted my teeth and watched in morbid curiosity, a player for the opposing team had just been hit in the neck by a slap shot. I sat in the spectator section at the Michigan versus Wilfred Laurie hockey game and to my astonishment the player quickly recovered and continued to play. Only a moment before he laid on the ice gripping his neck. The student section continued to scream and cheer on as if nothing had happened. I was also surprised at the chants I was hearing, most were fun, some were a little strange and then a couple were quite vulgar. Never had I seen a group of people yelling and screaming in such a manner, football is one thing but hockey was on a different level.
I had a similar feeling while I was at the Michigan versus Maryland girls’ field hockey game. I was surrounded by parents of opposing players and they too were getting very caught up in the game. They were screaming at the referees and players as loud as they could. At times I almost felt embarrassed for these parents. But I realized that this is exactly what A Bartlett Giamatti was writing about in his book Take Time for Paradise. These parents and students were living through these players.
The students at the hockey game and the parents in the stands cannot compete on the level of those in the game so they instead chose to play vicariously through the players. And to them that’s what they were watching- play. But it was most certainly not play for those in the game, as they were competing not playing. In Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book Homo Ludens, he defines what play truly is. One part of his definition is that play is contained, it does not spill over into the real world and does not have any consequences. For those competing this is most udoubtedly not the case. If that hockey player doesn’t get up after getting hit in the neck and is then unable to play, he is cut from the team and he loses his scholarship and can no longer afford an education. If those on the ice or field do not play well or make too many mistakes then they are benched, they can be cut by the team and they too may lose their ability to afford an education. There is no situation in which something as serious as what I have just mentioned can occur for those in the stands.
In my political science 101 class we talked about things that we consider play that do not fit into Huizinga’s definition. One student came up with the games that the Ancient Aztecs played in which the losing side would be sacrificed to the gods. Similar to the ice and field hockey game, the presence of such a consequence transforms what was once play into competition.
These players have extra stress put on them to play well. The fans do not have such stress so, as Giamatti writes, these people are living in utopia, or a world without work, stress, or any other worries. They don’t have to worry about their scholarship or the physical labor of playing the sport and can thus become completely enthralled with the play aspect of the competition. The spectators are in a state of perfect bliss and enjoyment. So when that puck hit the player’s neck, there were an infinite amount of terrible things that could have resulted from it, but we fans just kept on cheering.