Viewers vs. Doers: The Rise of Spectatoritis

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 28, 2011 · 135 comments

in A Man's Life

The college football season starts this weekend, and I won’t lie—I’m pretty excited. My beloved Sooners are ranked number one in preseason polls, and I quite enjoy settling on the couch on a cozy fall day to watch them play (when they win at least!).

But every once in awhile, say when the announcer shares the game’s attendance numbers, I get a small niggling feeling of discomfort. 80,000 people gathered to watch 22 men run around, throw a ball, and smash into each other. The appeal is not difficult to see—there’s something truly compelling about watching the most talented athletes in the world perform. But when you take a step back, it’s really quite odd, isn’t it? Two groups of men–the doers and the viewers—and one group is far, far larger than the other.

The Rise of Spectatoritis

Here and there appears the aggravated case, completely infected, the fan who is nothing but a fan—a flabby creature, symbolic of the multitude, a parasite upon the play of others, the least athletic of all men, never playing himself at anything, a spectacle hunter, not a sportsman. –Richard Henry Edwards, 1915

During these odd moments I often think of an old book Kate picked up a few years ago at a used bookstore. Written in 1938 by Jay B. Nash, it’s entitled Spectatoritis. During the first half of the 20th century, leisure time had steadily increased, and Nash argued that because Americans had never before been confronted with such large swaths of it, the country had not developed a “philosophy of leisure.” Without this philosophy, people were falling victim to what he dubbed “spectatoritis:”

The machine age has, of course, already supplied an unexampled wealth of leisure and what happens? The average man who has time on his hands turns out to be a spectator, a watcher of somebody else, merely because that is the easiest thing. He becomes a victim of spectatoritis—a blanket description to cover all kinds of passive amusement, an entering into the handiest activity merely to escape boredom. Instead of expressing, he is willing to sit back and have his leisure time pursuits slapped on to him like mustard plasters—external, temporary, and, in the end, “dust in the mouth.”

Nash presciently predicted that the plague of spectatoritis would only increase:

Man can sleep too much. Granted freedom, many men go to sleep—”physically and mentally,” organically and cortically. Not having the drive for creative arts they turn to pre-digested pastimes, prepared in little packages at a dollar per. This has literally thrown us into the gladiatorial stage of Rome in which the number of participants becomes fewer and the size of the grandstands, larger. Spectatoritis has become almost synonymous with Americanism and the end is not yet. The stages will get small and the rows of seats will mount higher.”

One can easily see how the specter of spectatoritis has indeed seeped into all areas of our lives. Not only in the obvious things in which passive involvement has always been the norm–90 million Americans watched the 2011 Superbowl; 100,000 people watched U2 in concert in October—but in areas which were formerly forums of active participation. For example, in visiting a couple of “megachurches,” awhile back, I was surprised at how much the service (actually, they called it an “experience”—“service” sounds too boring and stodgy) resembled any other form of entertainment—people listened to the music, watched a video and powerpoint presentation, sat through a short message from the pastor, and left 60 minutes later. There were no requirements for participation or service of any kind. It was interesting to see that worship had become yet another thing to be passively consumed, as opposed to actively created.

A current trend in the building of new middle and upper class suburban homes is to include a “theater room,” a windowless room complete with large, movie theater-like chairs, a speaker system, and a big screen television. This is another one of those things that seems odd when you take a step back…a whole room in the house dedicated just to watching stuff. We’ve gone from having parlors for making conversation, to rumpus or recreation rooms for playing games, to rooms in which people sit silently side-by-side in the dark.

More than anything, the internet has contributed to the spread of spectatoritis. Online interactions are particularly insidious because they provide people with the feeling that they are actively participating in something, while in reality it is just another form of passive amusement.  The main form of “activity” in modern life is the expression of personal preference. Liking or disliking. While formerly you could only be a fan of sports teams, you can now become a “fan” of Dominos Pizza, presidential candidates, even “sleeping.” I find it amusing that some websites have buttons in the response section of articles that allow people to upvote or downvote readers’ comments. So if you’re too lazy to write your own stuff, and it’s too much of a burden to even generate your own comment, you can still “participate” by showing your allegiance to someone else’s idea. But giving things thumbs up or thumbs down is not real participation. Why? Because such participation is “external, temporary, dust in the mouth.” Because it doesn’t involve any risk, any putting of your own skin in the game. Because it doesn’t change anything in you or in the world.

You Can’t Become a Man from the Sidelines

The personal interest in athletics has been largely superseded by an interest in spectacular games, which unfortunately tend to divide the Nation into two groups: the few overworked champions in the arena, and the great crowd, content to do nothing but sit on the benches and look on, while indulging their tastes for tobacco and alcohol.

It is this last that is turning so many thoughtful ones against baseball, football,etc. This, it will be seen, is a reproduction of the condition that ended in the fall of Rome. In her days of growth every man was a soldier; in the end a few great gladiators were in the arena, to be watched and applauded by the millions who personally knew nothing at all of fighting or heroism.

Degeneracy is the word.

To combat the system that has turned such a large proportion of our robust, manly, self-reliant boyhood into a lot of flat-chested cigarette-smokers, with shaky nerves and doubtful vitality, I began the Woodcraft movement in America.” –Ernest Thompson Seton, creator of Woodcraft Indians, and a founder of Boy Scouts of America

Of course there’s nothing wrong with taking in a spectacle or two. As I said the beginning, I love to watch football, and I enjoy attending a minor league baseball game, movie, or concert from time to time. I do not currently have the privilege of enjoying the smug pleasure of telling people that I do not have a tv, and I enjoy catching a few shows each week. I like surfing the internet and sharing things on Facebook.

There are men who feel that the entire problem with males today is that they’re too obsessed with college and professional sports. But that’s as wrong-headed as thinking that indulging in a straight diet of passive entertainment carries no ill-effects whatsoever. Rather than suffering from spectatoritis, these men are inflicted by high-horse-itis.

No, a problem only arises when instead of being a supplement to your life—an occasional relaxing indulgence–passive amusements become a substitution, a way to feel better about something you personally lack.

Recently, William Deresiewicz wrote “An Empty Regard,” a searing op-ed piece for The New York Times in which he questioned our current unthinking idolization of the military. This near canonization of the troops began during the Iraq War with the well-intentioned purpose of not repeating the mistakes of Vietnam, in which opposition to the war translated into animosity to those serving in it.

Deresiewicz  is not against supporting the troops per se—rather he argues that we use them as our “national football team,” as a reassuring symbol that the characteristics of traditional manhood are still alive and well. “The soldier is the way we want to see ourselves: stoic, powerful, focused, devoted,” Deresiewicz writes. But it’s a safe symbol—a team we can cheer for from the couch without having to step into the arena ourselves:

 The greater the sacrifice that has fallen on one small group of people, the members of the military and their families, the more we have gone from supporting our troops to putting them on a pedestal. In the Second World War, everybody fought. Soldiers were not remote figures to most of us; they were us. Now, instead of sharing the burden, we sentimentalize it. It’s a lot easier to idealize the people who are fighting than it is to send your kid to join them. This is also a form of service, I suppose: lip service…

The political scientist Jonathan Weiler sees the cult of the uniform as a kind of citizenship-by-proxy. Soldiers and cops and firefighters, he argues, embody a notion of public service to which the rest of us are now no more than spectators. What we really need, in other words, is a swift kick in the pants.

And this is the real danger of spectatoritis run amok—it allows us to experience vicariously the virtues of others, without having to cultivate them ourselves.

We can see this phenomena in the popularity of certain television shows as well. Deadliest Catch. Ax Men. Ice Road Truckers. These programs showcase blue collar men working with their hands, getting dirty, and risking their lives to support their families. The white collar man, himself a stranger to manual labor, gets a vicarious dose of blue collar manhood by watching these shows, all from the comfort of his recliner.

But these vicarious experiences are fleeting. They conjure up feelings of manliness for an hour or two, but seep away, leaving the spectator entirely unchanged. And the world utterly the same.

Discussing a manly “philosophy of leisure” really deserves its own post, but for now, a simple recommendation is this: every man should have at least one thing in his life in which he has some skin in the game, in which he is actually in the arena, and not watching from the stands. One thing in which he is a doer, and not just a viewer.


{ 135 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Conrad August 31, 2011 at 10:13 pm

great post! I whole-heartedly agree! Its why for my entire adolescent and young adult life I’ve really shunned following sports with any level of dedication and devotion (cue exception for world cups here). I am and avid athlete, and sometimes feel there are more sports I want to play than the time I have for them. I truly love sports, and in that love, I find that i could never be content to sit on the sidelines, when I could be the one playing! I could care less the score of the local team (and i live in pittsburgh, where the steelers are a religion), yet Ill sacrifice 6 hours a week to ultimate frisbee and another two to volleyball. Doing is a true drug in comparison to spectating which is just a light contact high.

102 Alex August 31, 2011 at 10:28 pm

I love your site, but come Oct. 8th, it’s on.

103 Rassan September 1, 2011 at 12:14 am

I think this article is a great companion piece as not everyone is a natural athlete or enjoys playing sports but should be out there doing something.

104 Bill September 1, 2011 at 12:21 pm

A great topic. Men need to watch others less and do more. I don’t follow any sports, or have a favorite team. I love playing baseball, softball, golf, football and such, but it’s boring to watch another play what I’m capable of.

I listened to a ball game the other day. I’m nostalgic about baseball on the radio. It’s how I remember my great grandfather, taking his noon nap to the sounds of Skip Carey announcing the action of a game. I listened while I was working in my shop.

Same goes for hunting and fishing shows on TV. This weekend I’m taking my son hunting for feral hogs and my niece’s husband is coming along to learn to shoot a rifle before he heads to bootcamp for USMC in a couple months. I used to think I was lazy to even lay around for a little while, but even at 15-16, I hated waking up and the sun already be up. I knew I missed some time to be doing something.

105 Marshall September 1, 2011 at 11:39 pm

a fan is not a man

106 Michael J. Pierce September 2, 2011 at 9:58 am

In October 1971 we ended the draft. A grand day for me as a young soldier because my pay doubled. I stayed in for 22 years. Since then we’ve raised two generations who don’t have to do anything. We need top bring back the draft or an equivalent form of national service. Look at countries that have compulsory service. They have a greater responsibility for their actions and a greater interest in their communities and country.

107 Hoo? September 2, 2011 at 11:42 am

First, thank you for your service to this country.
But what you suggest is part of our problem. We tend to view only a few as being able to actually “do something.” This means, if you want to serve your country you have to be a soldier, police officer, fireman, etc. When in reality, not everyone can do that. Instead, we should have the view that every person is capable of “doing something.” Brett is not soldier or anything like that, but what he does is of great service to our country and others. Each person should strive to “do something” right where they are at.

Besides, is forced labor the same thing a service? To me, service is state in your heart and cannot be forced on you by others. It is an internal motivation.

108 Harry R. Burger September 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Regarding the idea that one must be a soldier, firefighter, be of service, many are not aware of the national CERT program – Community Emergency Response Team. The goal is to prepare citizens to help themselves i the event of an emergency and be ready to help others in order to take some of the burden off of professional first responders when the worst happens, and anybody can join regardless of physical ability – my own group has several members who need a cane or walker to get around.

When Hurricane Irene approached Long Island, we ran a pet-friendly evacuation shelter and manned the County Emergency Operations Center non-emergency hotline, telling people if they needed to evacuate and where to go, taking reports of downed trees and blocked roads, and answering other questions.

I’ve linked to a site with more info where you can punch in your zip code and find the nearest local chapter.

109 Edgar September 2, 2011 at 8:54 pm

“A fan is not a man.”? Please, did you get beat up alot in school?

110 RK September 2, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Great post! Some folks have commented here saying they are not into sports etc. But I believe the post was aimed at doing ‘something’ and sports was used as an example. I quote the end of the post “every man should have at least one thing in his life in which he has some skin in the game, in which he is actually in the arena, and not watching from the stands. One thing in which he is a doer, and not just a viewer.”

Just wanted to make sure everyone read through the post and realized it is not just about sports – but something that ‘you’ can ‘do’ in your life!

By the way, I commented; didn’t hit like / dislike :)

111 L Neal September 2, 2011 at 9:44 pm

I didn’t misunderstand Casey’s post, or over-analyze the language. Casey’s statements are exactly the kind of misconception the article is about. The spectators at these events are socializing and entertaining themselves, not engaging in a proactive endeavor of any kind, yet the confusion persists that cheering on some people that are playing a game and sharing that experience is somehow actually accomplishing something beyond entertaining the spectators. The same goes with playing video games or attending a movie, the players, programmers, and actors and such are DOING something, they are playing their sport, creating their games, or making a film. The spectators are being entertained. There’s too much entertainment and these days and not enough accomplishment, as the two keep getting further confused there are more and more people frittering away all of their spare time doing nothing while thinking they’re doing something and wondering once in a while why they don’t feel more fulfilled in life.

112 Kelly September 4, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Like, like, like! It’s easy to fall into the trap of sitting and watching TV, or even reading a book, because it’s easier than some sort of constructive pastime that requires effort. In my experience, it’s worth staying out of the trap. I experimented once with some vacation time I had. I took a week off and “relaxed” the whole time. I watched TV, read some books, hung out with the family, and basically did nothing of value. It was depressing! By the time it was over, I couldn’t wait to get back to my dreary insurance-company IT job. Later, I took another week off, and planned to do a ton of work around the house. I did some work on my car, learned how to roast coffee, built onto my deck, and a host of other things. I felt thoroughly rejuvenated afterward. People are happier, I think, when they have something constructive to do. I don’t think I’ll ever be a “kick back on the beach” sort of guy. Thank God.

113 Michael September 4, 2011 at 10:29 pm

I greatly enjoyed this article. I found it very insightful. It made me think about when I was growing up. At my elementary school age we were always at the local playground, playing pickup games in football, baseball and in the Winter (they flooded the basketball courts and put up boards to make a rink) ice hockey. We played for hours everyday, especially in the summer. Today when I drive by that same park, it is completely empty, even on weekends. It makes me a bit sad to know that the kids today are not experiencing the same level of comradeship and exercise I did as a kid.

114 John Sowash September 4, 2011 at 10:40 pm

This post encapsulates my recent pondering precisely. I wrote about something similar on my own blog, with a nod to the insightful Seth Godin:

115 Rob September 5, 2011 at 11:56 am

But isn’t reading a spectator thing? i.e. if you’re just reading great books, you’re not actually taking active part in anything, just like TV, right? Or would you say it’s different, because you have to actually read, rather than just watch – but once you’re absorbed in something it doesn’t really feel like reading any more. And you can absorb great ideas from great literature, but you can do the same with great films and TV shows!

116 Byron September 5, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Interestingly, the latest running boom runs counter to this trend. Tens of thousands are getting into the big races now and the popularity of participation only seems to be rising.

Major marathons are so interesting because thousands of people are actually in the exact same event as world champions and Olympians. It’s as if the Super Bowl had 50,000 people on the field. Though the term “competing” would be too strong, at least so many could be spectators are off their ass and on their feet.

117 Chris September 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm

I think reading is a spectator sport as well. It all depends on how you do things though. I think watching TV is an excellent way to learn to be a actor or sound man or director, as long as you are watching how things are done and actively commenting on how the show (or movie or book or video game or whatever) is being produced. I think its only when you sit back and watch something unfold with only a passive interest in whats going on that you are being a spectator.

118 Matthew September 5, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Amen to your words Brett & Kate. This is a problem in the church as well. People hear and read about what others are doing to change the world and then go home feeling as if they themselves have done something. We all need to take a risk, to put our hide on the line every now and then.

119 P September 5, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Very eloquent.
I thought about this many times too.
It puzzles me every day that so many people seem to be fine just by listening to mp3, clicking the like button, having an ipad, attending sport events, etc.

Thank you for bring this up.

120 Nathan September 5, 2011 at 5:17 pm

I’ve always been uneasy watching most spectator sports. I figure that if I can’t be the one on the field then I shouldn’t spend much time watching it. Thanks for this article, it helped me make sense of some things.

121 @faux September 5, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Hurry up… throw out your iPads NOW !!

122 JK September 6, 2011 at 12:16 am

Loved the article, not so much into the holier than thou, manlier than thou sports bashing in the comments. Everything is meaningless, when you get down to it. Sometimes putting down someone else’s meaningless hobbies helps push the meaninglessness of your own hobby out of the way. Joe feels good about himself because he spent his Saturday fishing instead of watching television like Bob did. But Bob thinks Joe is stupid because you can get fish at the supermarket. John thinks he’s far superior to either Joe or Bob because he climbed Mt. Everest, but Bob and Joe both think John is an idiot to spend all that time and money just to say he climbed a mountain. Do what you want to do and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it. Everyone has to decide for themselves what meaningless pursuit they arbitrarily try to force significance onto.

123 Nordyke September 6, 2011 at 10:03 pm

A few days ago, while cooking dinner, I began thinking about how this trend also applies to the world of food. Most of our food is prepared for us; put in little plastic or cardboard boxes. We have television channels devoted entirely to watching other people cook, and the commercials are for nothing but the prepared food that comes in the little plastic and cardboard boxes.

We are food spectators just as much as any other type.

124 Ricardo Dirani September 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm

“Brett is not soldier or anything like that, but what he does is of great service to our country and others”

In his own words, “this is also a form of service, I suppose: lip service”

The idea is enticing, but the math doesn’t add up. If many people are playing many games, then many people are writing them. We’ve probably never had this many programmers. Every producer needs a bunch of consummers or his product is no longer a product, but a useless past time.

125 Bob September 7, 2011 at 9:42 pm

This is an excellent, well-balanced, non-condemning post!

There is absolutely nothing wrong with watching sports or having a favorite team(s), but I believe these should be forms of recreation to help us recharge from the rigors of positively impacting our world. The real problem arises when spectating becomes our way of life.

It seems to me that one of our root issues is the lack of a God-given vision to touch those around us in some meaningful way. This amongst other things leaves us lacking a sense of significance and so it becomes easier to feed off of the glory of others.

Personally, I want to leave a mark on this world, some type of a legacy that will last beyond my days. It is my hope that I would be motivated by love and not just some vague sense of doing my duty so that I can get back to my real passion of watching the game.

126 bill September 10, 2011 at 9:39 am

true. wholeheartedly agree. but come to an SEC game, get loud, and you truly do feel like you are part of the game and making a difference… more than just a spectator. WDE

127 Steve September 11, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I know it may not fit the dictionary definition of “proactive”, but I don’t think attending sportings events are passive. When you have a bunch of people cheering on one team it creates a feeling of togetherness, cohesion, and excitement. In addition, you often meet new people at such events. I used to have season tickets to the Giants and I became quite good friends with those sitting around me. I don’t have the tickets anymore, but these people are still friends of mine.

128 nkosana September 15, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Great article. Couldn’t agree more.

129 Justin September 16, 2011 at 10:02 am

I agree wholeheartedly with what was said here. Being from Alabama and our two college football teams winning the National Championship two years in a row. It’s amazing how people over-react to football. Especially football. The overpriced tickets, the non-stop “souvenir” purchases, and the never ending debates at work about who’s team is better. And 99% of these people have zero affiliation with the schools and teams they so adamantly back. The ones who do, care less than the ones who don’t.

I do however have a problem with one thing the Brett has to say. I enjoy watching movies. Brett wrote how he jokingly is still the snob without the tv, but watches Hulu. I have a friend who enjoys ribbing me about the same thing. The only thing is just because you don’t watch a TV show on a television set doesn’t mean you aren’t still watching TV. As I said earlier, I enjoy watching movies and documentaries. And, unlike sports I feel it’s a completely different scenario. Regardless of the outcome in sporting event nothing in life changes. Life would have continued on just the same if it had never happened. However a movie with a well drawn script, a decent cast, and an interesting plot can make you think and give you scenarios to discuss afterward with people who also saw the movie. You can develop real what ifs and hows. After watching it, just like sports, nothing really changes, but you’ll leave a theater with a thousand things running through your mind. Now with that in mind, I’m not saying this will happen when you pop in Super Troopers or any Farrelly brothers movie. But think about the classics, movies like Citizen Kane or something similar. Just like a good book, a movie can stimulate your mind and creates discussion. Now, please don’t think I am trying to lump movies into the same category as books. I understand the importance, value and timelessness of a good book as opposed to a good movie. But please, please, please for my sake, don’t lump movies into the same category as sports.

130 Serraboy September 16, 2011 at 10:19 am

Great article. I’m ashamed of myself for sitting here “spectating” on this site about manliness! Get you *ss outside and do something. For me and my boys, we love the outdoors. Fish, hunt, camp, hike, bike and ski year ’round mostly in the woods and water of Michigan.

We started only going to amateur sporting events and I think spectatoritis has alot to do with it (now knowing what that is!). Better to go watch a high school football game with a few others than college or pro (same thing in my book!) with 10′s of thousands.

I need to also add that I don’t like most of what I read on this site. It’s devoid of one of the most critical values of REAL MEN: Faith.

131 Michael Boulding September 19, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Amazing post, and quite moving.

However, I was reading through the comments, and I noticed how some people were talking about how kicking back and watching a movie or reading a book are so inactive. I believe that such a line of thinking can be disasterous to a healthy life style. Yes, we need to be active, we need to be in the ring, rather then just on the sidelines. But spectatoritis doesn’t necessarily apply to EVERY book read or every TV show watched. These are forms of art that are created to be consumed, if we were to stop watching movies, why would they make them? If we stopped reading books, why would they write them? The danger is in over-indulgence. If you watch TV simply for the sake of watching a movie, then it’s almost saiting an addiction. If you watch a movie because you wish to enjoy the art and the story, let’s take Lord of the Rings for example. When I watch The Lord of the Rings, I imagine myself in the shoes of Aragorn, I see his struggles, his triumphs, and I walk away inspired, thinking ‘I want to be like that.’ Another is Battlestar Galactica, and Admiral Adama. Two iconic characters that ooze manliness, and I try and take their lessons and apply it to my own life.

What I’m trying to say is all things in moderation, including moderation itself. You have to let loose once in a while, the key is the time and the place, and the attitude. “Work hard, play hard, sleep hard.” is my motto.

132 Robert Weedall September 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm

Would you prefer it if instead of simply agreeing broadly with othe peoples statements we instituted a 5 point bulletin of everything we liked or disliked about their points or the article?

I hate it when people go “me to” just so that they can post something in regards to an article, and simply being able to go “I broadly agree with this statement” takes a lot of boredom out of reading and re-reading the same posts with very little difference between them,

133 Tom September 27, 2011 at 11:44 am

Excellent article. Too often we like staying on the sidelines because we’re so afraid of getting hurt, and worse than that, being left behind by a society that doesn’t seem to promote being our brother’s keepers any longer. It’s because of this that we feel humbled before someone like Dakota Meyer, who risked his life to get not only his fellow soldiers out of harm’s way, but to recover the bodies of his brothers who fell before him. We starve for the feeling that someone’s going to be out there covering our back, then grow weary and cynical when it seems like everyone’s out for themselves alone. Best to stay in the crowd where you don’t have to risk injury and abandonment.

In my mind, the first rule of manliness is that you always watch your brother’s back, because he’s the one who will make sure you get home if something happens, and you owe it to him to do the same for him. Of course, this rule requires that we accept our vulnerability and mortality, which is incredibly frightening.

Anyway, thanks again for the article, and Boomer Sooner!

134 Michael November 13, 2012 at 3:13 am

Very well written and insightful article.
It has made me see things in a new light.

135 Alan B January 2, 2014 at 11:04 am

I think a lot of people, not specific to guys, assume there isn’t enough time to pursue active participation or they aren’t disciplined enough to make it through the hard parts. I recently tried to help my wife learn to play guitar, I’ve been playing off and on for 15 years. She couldn’t get past the intro chords because she wasn’t willing to practice everyday and couldn’t take the pain. Seems like TV saps the energy from so many people. I have friends that jump from hobby to hobby never really getting beyond a beginner level in any of them.

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