A strong case for the lunacy of sports as rooted in basic human neuroscience and cognitive tendency.
With a light, anecdotal touch that belies its governance by hard science, Sports Illustrated executive editor Wertheim (Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, 2009, etc.) and Sommers (Psychology/Tufts Univ.; Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, 2011) throw considerable light on “all the batshit craziness that courses through the sports ecosystem.” Though the material they rely on comes from peer-reviewed journals and the results of scientific experiments, the application of their findings is very human: “we found the quirkiness of sports taught us something deeper about who we are, what we care about, and the forces that shape our behavior.” Each chapter begins with specific fan or player behaviors, which run from the curious to the comical to the sketchy—e.g., why are so many quarterbacks good looking? Try the halo effect, in which the projection of a positive impression—warmth, humor, mastery—casts their other characteristics, including physical attractiveness, in a similarly positive light. Also important are survival instincts (those who exude dominance get to mate), the ability to read subtle facial and nonverbal cues, and the unconscious wisdom of first impressions. We are, in a word, groomed. So why don’t great players necessarily become great coaches? It comes down to the difficulty of explaining what comes naturally. “Non-experts,” write the authors, “have to work through a rote checklist of procedures in order to accomplish a goal; experts figure out shortcuts,” often subconsciously. Because sports reflects the human condition, there are many downsides, from the two-edged sword of praise, rivalries that “open the door for rule-bending and outright deceit,” and the sad tendency “to excuse moral failures so long as they belong to members of our team.”
If sports bring out the kooky, spooky, and creepy in us, Wertheim and Sommers give us a chance to understand ourselves and perhaps get a grip before we totally lose it.