Sport might make you hug a stranger. It can make the most taciturn men weep copiously. It forces normally genial parents to yell obscenities at a blameless referee during an under-eights football match.
What’s to account for the powerful hold it has over people worldwide ? As Tadhg Coakley points out in this crisply written and thought-provoking book, “sport is one big contradiction: sport is something trivial that we have to take very seriously”.
The Game comprises 18 essays covering sport from every possible angle, while doubling up as a memoir of pivotal sporting moments in Coakley’s life.
This multi-faceted book ponders how sport teaches us about our own limitations, how winning is foundational on losing, losers being in far greater supply than winners; how defeats and victories are ephemeral. All lessons essential to life. Indeed, sport is like a more concentrated version of life, a microcosmic intensification of its vagaries. So, it’s fitting then that this book transcends its remit. It’s an enquiry into the philosophy of sport with universal application. Even people who’ve never kicked a ball or roared in triumph in the stands will love this. My absorption never faltered.
Drawing from skills honed as a novelist, Coakley employs stylish flourishes which keep things dynamic and zipping along – whether he’s using the present tense or the second person for a sense of immediacy. With impressive erudition, he also draws from wide-ranging literary sources – David Foster Wallace, Wendy Erskine, Paul Durcan, Sally Rooney, Joyce Carol Oates. Coakley’s inquisitive nature keeps him from getting hamstrung by his subject. He makes unlikely, intriguing connections along the way – I doubt there’ll be another book this year that compares the career trajectory of Richie Sadlier and musician St Vincent.
The sporting world often favours febrile collectivism over individualism, so Coakley’s idiosyncratic approach is a delightful surprise. Despite adoring sport, he’s always felt like an outsider. While sport provided him with a pleasing sense of belonging, he was aware of having a bifurcated identity – half sportsman (part of a collective), half writer (standing apart from the crowd).
One of Coakley’s objectives here is to confront the toxicity that can plague sport, admirably examining his own transgressions. Although he’s candid in a very compelling way, his sins are pretty venial; he comes across as a very good, progressive person. They are mainly just sins of omission – most of us commit about 40 venial sins before lunchtime.
He recalls a moment he was too aggressive while shouting during a Munster Hurling Final which made a father and his son change seat. Hardly a hanging offence. Still, he cleverly connects this moment to the countless examples of how sport can tip over into violence. It’s important to be a fan and not a fanatic: “To the fanatic, the enemy is always in the wrong.” Fanatics don’t just abuse their enemies but also their own players when they mess up.
In a bracing section exposing the extent to which dirty money corrupts the sporting world, Coakley also harangues himself for giving so much money to Rupert Murdoch over the years via his Sky Sports subscription. Shocking behaviour, frankly.
To be fair, such minor offences are so intractable because they are so commonplace, as is the case with gender inequalities in sport. Coakley is insightful in an essay called Am I Sexist? when lamenting that he is more inclined to watch GAA played by men than women: “There is so much to admire in women’s sport. It doesn’t have a fraction of the brutality of men’s sport – the vicious, casual, arrogant aggression”. Homophobia is also far less rampant in women’s sport: “in the 2019 Women’s World Cup of football, forty-two of the players were openly gay. In men’s football nobody can be openly gay” (commendably, Jake Daniels has since come out) .
While these sections of sport’s dark side are eye-opening, my favourite parts are the poignant familial reminiscences and the philosophical musings about what makes sport so vital, particularly those dealing with the elastic nature of time in moments of sporting fervour. A momentous match can take place outside time. A victory can bring the dead back to life – when Manchester United dramatically won the Champions League in 1999, a friend of Coakley’s rang his father to share in the excitement only to remember his father had been dead for 10 years. An essential book for fans of both sport and probing essays alike.