It’ll end in tears: why athletes cry and what it means

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Any major sporting triumph without euphoric emotion or a serious opening of the floodgates would seem strange. Commentators tell us that tears show “passion”. Fans seem to demand them. It wasn’t always so. But why?

When Newcastle United overcame Arsenal in the 1932 FA Cup Final, the winning team did as they still do today. They walked off the field, up a flight of stairs and then turned left onto small walkway where dignitaries and the famous trophy waited for them.

At this point the similarities between then and now end. Today, we are so used to the captain receiving the cup, kissing it and holding it aloft to the ecstatic cheers of his team’s supporters, we probably think this is what always happened.

Not so. In 1932, the cup was handed to Jimmy Nelson, the Newcastle captain, who immediately departed the scene.

There was no kissing. No hugging. No fist-pumping. No deafening burst of crowd noise. Nothing. Like their captain, the rest of the Newcastle players just accepted their winner’s medals and walked calmly away.

This was no aberration. As part of my research into the effects of professionalism on modern sport, I’ve searched forward and backward in time and found that the same things happened or, more precisely, didn’t happen.

It wasn’t until I got to the 1950s that slightly more conspicuous celebrations began to appear. It’s in the mid 1950s that captains begin briefly holding up the cup, apparently at first for a photographer, before smartly disappearing.

Slowly, year by year, the players lingered slightly longer on the platform and more obvious forms of gestural communication between players and supporters emerge. Players started to turn and face the crowd – which they had never done before – and raised their arms in the air.

Another interesting change happens at exactly the same time. Modern professional footballers celebrate goal scoring with volcanic displays of emotion. They beat the left hand side of their chests with their fists, kiss the badge on their jersey, run to their supporters, blow more kisses, tumble like gymnasts or perform pre-arranged dance routines. Often they do all of these!

Prior to the 1960s, though, goal scorers simply turned around and ran back to prepare for the game’s restart. There was a little bit of back-slapping and the occasional arm raised in triumph, but that was about it.

The emotional shift

Why the change? And why then?

Prior to the 1960s English footballers were essentially indentured slaves. Club owners decided among themselves who would play where and for how much. Despite huge crowds and significant ticket revenues, even the best players earned little more than the average tradesman.

By 1950, player salaries had begun to rise but the frustration and powerlessness players felt drove some to take the previously unthinkable step of playing in Europe. Some even went to South America in search of better pay.

At this point a much longer story will need to be condensed into a few lines. Player unrest increased throughout the 1950s. This precipitated a public relations war between club owners, who painted the players as greedy mercenaries, and players, who argued that they were not getting a fair share of the revenue the game was generating.

So here, I think, are the beginnings of an answer. The way players celebrated began to change at the same time that they were competing for the sympathies of the paying public. Without needing to be told, they sensed that fans needed to be convinced that they weren’t just in it for the money and that they shared fan’s emotional investment in their team. The most obvious place to communicate this was on the field.

Finally, led by Jimmy Hill – who would later become one of English football’s first and most recognisable television pundits – a player’s strike was planned for 1961, a move which eventually brought about the abolition of maximum wage ceilings for players.

As wages rose through the 1960s and 1970s, players began to hug and celebrate more wildly. By the 2000s, the top players were earning tens of thousands (and in some cases hundreds of thousands) of pounds a week and marking goals by ripping their shirts off, sprinting up and down the sidelines and, yes, in some cases actually crying.



A “wail” of a time?

At this point some of you will want to point out that as the 20th century progressed it became more “OK” for grown men to show emotion. Surely that’s part of the story?

Actually, I don’t think it is. The transition from stiff upper lips to orgasmic displays of emotion has happened in all major professional sports but the interesting thing is that it has happened at different times for each sport.

In cricket, the first signs of change occurred in the 1970s with World Series Cricket. But even into the 1990s, video footage of players from the Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh generation show, at least by today’s standards, very subdued on field celebrations (see video below).

Century-makers didn’t run and leap into the air while kissing the badges on their helmets and the frenzied post-wicket group hug was still a ways off.

But as Waugh’s autobiography shows, a players’ strike in the late 1990s was a very real possibility. In an echo of English football in the 1950s, Waugh recalls that as tensions rose, Australian cricket administrators called the players mercenaries who “only have self-interest at heart and no real emotional attachment to the longstanding traditions of the game”.

Notice the reference to emotion.

When the dust settled, the first tattooed, million-dollar-a-year cricketers who talked endlessly about their “love” and “passion” for the baggy green soon began rolling off the conveyor belt.

Reality cheque

Then there’s rugby. When New Zealand won the first world cup in 1987 – the only one to be played prior to open professionalism – there is barely a handshake between the players. When South Africa win in 2005, the fifth world cup of the professional era, the victorious Springboks spontaneously throw themselves into seething mobs of writhing masculinity.

In the case of tennis it is in the late 1960s when the despised professionals are finally allowed to play the Grand Slam tournaments and the customary handshake at the net begins to be over-taken by fist-pumping and screams of triumph.

In a couple of decades anonymous journeymen and women are millionaires, while tournament winners are throwing themselves on the ground, staring with disbelief at the heavens, and struggling to contain their emotions as the cheques are handed over.

In fact, do you remember when large cardboard cheques were actually presented to the winners of golf and tennis tournaments?

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The reason this doesn’t happen much any more is the same reason why athletes cry so often, whether in victory, defeat or retirement. It is the same reason why highly paid Olympic athletes began draping themselves in flags for their lap of honour.

And it is the same reason why professional sporting events are becoming more like going to an evangelical church service, complete with ever more ubiquitous and solemn renderings of national anthems.

Eye-watering salaries

The reason for all of this is that the commercial value of sport – and therefore the money that the players earn – still rests on the people watching and paying being prepared to believe that what they are watching and paying for is not simply people earning an over-inflated wage. The more sport becomes primarily a money game, the greater the work that has go into pretending it isn’t.

So as yet another player releases yet another line of clothing, and as the coverage of sport is less and less distinguishable from the advertisements that punctuate it, the more emotion is used, consciously and unconsciously, to attempt to show that this is not mere commerce.

Likewise, as the economic and cultural distance between players and spectators increased during the 20th century, more effort has had to go into bridging or at least obscuring that gap. This is why media coverage of sports such as tennis are so obsessed with the personalities and “like-ability” of players.

What does it matter whether we like Roger more than Andy or Novak more than Rafa?

Because in a world in which sports pour out of the media like tonnes and tonnes of indistinguishable sludge, the perpetuation of the fantasy that sport matters in a way that, say, buying and selling real-estate or playing the stock-market don’t, can no longer be sustained by the sporting action itself.

In fact, the vast majority of media sport is boring, repetitive and inconsequential. What elite sport is now is an emotion machine.

The funny thing is that, in years past, spectators turned up to sport in comparatively far greater numbers and seemed to enjoy it perfectly well without the tears and the histrionics.

What this history tells us, I think, is that the emotion we see in modern sport is not the natural end-product of earth-shattering events, and much less a broad cultural or social trend.

Rather, emotion is the opiate that diverts sports consumers from the ways in which we are exploited and manipulated. But as Freud might have suggested, it is an exploitation that we invite, participate in, even demand.

For while ever sport grows harder and harder to believe in, those who want nothing so much as to believe will need to swallow ever stronger love potions to keep the fantasy alive.

Expect more tears.

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