Sports and the importance of story

Over at Wendy’s livejournal, she talks about the experience of watching the Belmont Stakes.

As I was cleaning cat boxes and amusing my foster (a very loud adolescent kitten named Cloud), the pre-race show blathered all about Big Brown, Big Brown’s trainer, Big Brown’s jockey, Big Brown’s jockey’s ill son, Big Brown’s foot, Big Brown’s health, Big Brown’s etc. There seemed to be very little about the other horses on the field, which I think diminished the drama.

And then Big Brown didn’t win. As they brought Da’Tara, the winner of this grueling race, to the winner’s circle and draped him with flowers, the announcer continued about Big Brown, Big Brown’s jockey, Big Brown’s loss, Big Brown’s hoof crack, Big Brown’s etc. What a pathetic moment for Da’Tara’s jockey and trainers. “The official winner of the Belmont Stakes: Some Colt Who Was Not Big Brown.”

I can see two reasons for that, one stemming from the other. The first is that the media had prepared on Big Brown to the exclusion of everything else. They had tons of tidbits of information about him, probably half their preparation. And the other half got divided among the rest of the field. When they had to talk about someone else, they had only about three minutes’ worth of information, so they had to talk about what they knew.

The second is that we as humans love story. I’m not just channelling Terry Pratchett in Wyrd Sisters when I say this. The fact is that we like to fit the reality around us into easily-understood stories.

Right now, American culture has been lulled by Hollywood into believing in the perpetual happy ending. We deserve the happy ending. The hero pulls through in the end. The sports team wins. The favored horse wins the triple crown.

We saw this in spades with the Superbowl this past February. The Patriots had won every single game up until that last one. Clearly the story arc was going to carry them through so they would win the final game as well and be completely victorious. “The road to perfection” they were calling it. The story demanded a win.

In reality, of course, they lost. My Patient Husband said that in the lunch room at Angeltown Industries, the talk was stunned: it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Even non-fans of football knew it “shouldn’t” have happened that way. The story arc was broken. It didn’t have the predicted ending.

The trouble is that we as Americans tend to write the ends of the stories without looking too carefully at the story itself. Our divorce statistics alone tell us that the couple doesn’t always live happily ever after, and yet I’ve seen wedding invitations with a knight carrying a princess on his horse up a long winding hill to his castle. We want to believe in the stories. We long for them to come true.

And the result, as Wendy pointed out, is that when it doesn’t come true, we’re obviously unprepared. The couple that didn’t think they’d ever see hard times has nothing in their tool chest for working through the issues. The reporter looking at Da’Tara in the winner’s circle has nothing to say about the winner, only about the happy-ending-that-wasn’t.

We need to look up from the archetypes and the storybooks and analyze from the head, not the heart. Do the hard work and compile the stats on horses that aren’t the favorite; do the hard work and learn “fair fighting” techniques for the marriage; take off the rose-colored glasses and say, “It should work this way, but it may not, so how can I help the happy ending come true? And what’s my cope-with-it plan in case it doesn’t?”


  1. CricketB

    Richard Hughes, The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories, especially the title story and The Dark Child. Absolutely worth the shelf-space.

    The endings aren’t the traditional happily ever after. I’m telling The Dark Child this month. The characters are all happy with the ending, which makes me sad.

  2. philangelus

    I just checked, and the Angeltown public library doesn’t have it. 🙁