This past weekend I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go and see the world’s number one rugby team, the New Zealand All-Blacks, play the USA Eagles in Chicago. The final score was a vicious 74-6, as apparently there is no mercy rule or courtesy when it comes to professional rugby matches. Ironically, Mika taught us that the game of rugby was meant only for gentlemen in the 19th century, but no evidence of this seemed to remain as I watched a US player stumble with a bloody nose from the field. This image contrasted sharply with that of Sam Mikulak, the Olympic pride of Michigan’s gymnastics team, elegantly rotating through the air in a performance on the rings against Penn State at last year’s meet.
The New Zealand rugby players worked as seamlessly as a single unit. From the moment the scrum broke, to the moment the rugby ball crossed the goal line, the players were continually looking for, blocking, and passing down the field to achieve their common goal. There is a clear sense of unity and interrelation between the players, as they must function holistically if they wish to have a hope for competing. All these players, though individuals and excellent athletes in their own right, work beneath the sovereign banner of a single team for New Zealand, and rely upon one another during play.
Sharply contrasting this is the team I encountered when I attended one of Michigan’s gymnastics’ meets, where the Michigan Wolverines competed against the No.8 Penn State team. Each Michigan gymnast had his own event in which he competed, ranging from the bar, a floor routine, the pommel horse, vault, and more. While all the gymnasts were clearly members of the same Michigan team, there was a much greater sense of distinction among the individual athletes. The players like Mikulak, had no obligation to rely on one another during the act of play. Herein, the sport of gymnastics provides an interesting dilemma, as it blends individual athleticism within the larger sphere of the Michigan team. One athlete becomes solely responsible for upholding the weight of the team in their chosen event.
In rugby, each New Zealand player was constantly aware of the position and potential of his teammates. No single player could carry the ball down the field and put points onto the scoreboard by himself, it required the effort of teamwork. Contrariwise, the gymnastics meet was scored by collectively adding the points from each gymnast’s event to provide a total score, which could then be compared to Penn State’s. Yes, each athlete was aware of his role in contributing to the common good, the point total, but their contribution was the result of their event’s act. The unity so desperately required for the New Zealand All-Blacks was fairly unnecessary here, because although each gymnast was a member of the same team, he stood alone when it came time to perform his event.
What does this separation mean for Giamatti’s view of spectators? The New Zealand All-Blacks are a professional, world-renowned team. Michigan’s gymnastics team, although clearly containing world-class athletes, should theoretically have more freedom to simply enjoy the act of gymnastics as play, simply by being at the college level. I however, found the opposite to be true. At the gymnastics meet, I could look around and see students, parents, and several random groups, all coming together to watch the competition. Before the meet began however, I could see several people yawning, stragglers rambling into the arena, and people casually taking their seats and looking at their phones. The rugby spectators by comparison, could be seen all across the Chicago stadium, wearing their jerseys, face paints, and enthusiastically chanting their respective cheers. One would assume, from these descriptions that the rugby fans would experience a higher degree of seriousness in the ensuing play, but this is not what I found.
These fans, though initially seeming to be more invested and intent in projecting their ambitions for excellence upon the rugby players also grew less serious. This is counterintuitive to the increasing seriousness predicted by Dunning, but I believe I know why. Within minutes of the rugby game’s beginning, the disparity between scores only grew. As the intensity of competition grew weaker over time, the fans, no longer concerned with achieving the thrill of fulfillment through their players, could simply enjoy watching the act of play. In contrast, at the Michigan gymnastics’ meet, the final scores were not revealed until the end. The fans grew more restless and anxious as time wore on and the events were counted, as it was not possible to fully discern who was in the lead at any given moment. By the time the scores were finally announced, all those who had come looked as if they were preparing for battle. Therefore, when the threat of competition and challenge exists between teams, the seriousness of the fans will increase proportionally. Herein lies Dunning’s conflict between seriousness and fun- they are not mutually exclusive, but instead can fluctuate depending upon the play occurring on the field, whether it be the Chicago stadium or Cliff Keen Arena.