Category Archives: Sports



Our beloved benefactor, mentor, moral rudder, and all round inspiration for what we do here day in and day out, Bob Denham, sends us this congratulatory Skeltonic:

A moose, a beaver, maple leaf!
Canada is now the champ!

Crosby and his skating buddies
Revved it up another amp.

Barack lost a case of Molson.
Denham lost a Norrie stamp.

Looks like all those U.S. skaters
Need a bit more hockey camp.

I’ll leave to others who know the subtleties of the game better than I do, but it sure looked like it could have easily gone the other way — as sweet as that particular victory was, especially given that Canada finished first in the gold medals standing, the most ever won by a host nation.  The American team was great and will certainly be a contender four years from now.  And the Russians and Swedes will no doubt be resurgent.  It’s so nice that it’s both our game and that we don’t completely own it.

Hockey Night (and Afternoon) in Canada


In all the excitement of a gold medal rematch between Canada and the USA today, it’s hard not to wring the last bit of lingering excitement from two longstanding hockey cliches: Paul Henderson’s winning goal against the Soviets in ’72 (above), and the American “Miracle on Ice” against the Soviets in ’80 (after the jump).

The Soviets.  Cold War, Mutual Assured Destruction (or, the Strangelovian acronym, MAD), and perennial “strategic arms” negotiations — not to mention those recurring classic hockey “summits.”

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Frye on Hockey


Gordie Howe and Denis Brodeur

Here’s Frye on pucks
For all Canucks
And others who like
Sports on ice.

Tim Horton knew
That Norrie flew
Around the rink
Not once but twice.

Watching a hockey game is not directly a spectator sport, because anyone interested enough in hockey to watch a game knows how the game is played, & through that knowledge can see much more of what is going on, with or without a commentator, than the players.  (CW 13, 95)

The difference between leisure and distraction or boredom is not so much in what one does as in the mental attitudes toward it.  It’s easiest to see this if we take extreme examples.  Our television sets and highways are crowded on weekends with people who are not looking for leisure but are running away from it.  Leisure goes to a hockey game to see a game: distraction or boredom goes to see one team trample the other into the ice.  (CW 10, 224)

Wherever we turn in this problem, we keep falling over the word “education”: but if education means trying to get people to stop going to hockey games and go to discussion groups on great books instead, education isn’t going to help much either. (ibid., 225)

We get bored because we feel that something is missing inside ourselves.  We look outside ourselves for the missing place, either aggressively, by trying to bully somebody, or by trying to forget about ourselves by throwing ourselves into some kind of illusion.  For this state of mind, illusion is a lot better than reality.  Far better to go into squealing hysterics over a rock‑and-roll singer than over a dictator: far better to fight the Russians in a hockey game than on a battlefield.  But illusion can’t fool everybody all the time.  Some people, sooner or later, have to wake up and look for the missing piece inside themselves. (ibid., 225)

The television camera, being essentially an extension of one person’s eyes, peers, squints, and pries; it is looking for a single visual focus.  The focus is “where it’s at,” and television has a great deal to do with the obsession of the last few years with this phrase.  If we ask what television does best in extending the individual’s visual range, it seems clear that it is particularly good at, for example, football and hockey games.  These are, as I suggested earlier, different from baseball in that they are specifically “where it’s at” games, where it’s at being usually where the ball or puck is.  Focussing on the ball or puck also clarifies the pattern of opposition in the game being played: that is, it illustrates the strategy of one team confronting another.  The result is that television tends to report everything as though it were some kind of football or hockey game, and the vogue for “confrontation” and polarized issues is a major social feature of society’s effort to absorb the television way of seeing.  (ibid., 296)

I wish the makers of such films would realize that no event has any meaning without its visual context and without its historical context.  This program was what André would call incestuous: it was begotten, born, and bred of the television medium.  It looks dead now, for the same reason that no one wants to hear about last year’s football games.  The assumption throughout was that a person’s “real” character is the one he would demonstrate on one side or the other of a polarized issue, and this assumption is preposterous.  The confrontation issue, including football and hockey games, is a form of social ritual.  (ibid., 298)

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Frye on Sports

frye athlete

Frye clutching a baseball in front of the family's Pine Street home, Moncton, N.B. ca. 1922.

Further to Russell Perkin’s earlier post:

As for Frye‑reading sports fans, I spent the first couple of decades of my life doing nothing but playing basketball, and a love of that game, along with tennis and handball, still runs deep.

I suspect Frye was not much given to sports because competition was too much rooted in the competitive instinct, though he does report that his first memories have to do with World War I and the game of shooting Germans. Anticipating Stephen Dedalus, he also says that early on he was given to “staying out of games because of danger of breaking glasses.” And then there is the violent aspect of competitive sports. Jack Megill, a character in Frye’s unfinished novel, describes “a scrubby little soccer game where the football was about the only one on the field that wasn’t kicked.” In a cryptic little “proverb from hell” on the topic of violence, he writes, “Sadism in sports: gladiators to hockey.”

Is part of it something in the Canadian psyche? Frye told one of his U.S. classes “that students conditioned from infancy to be part of a world power are bound to be very different in their attitude from students conditioned from infancy to watching the game from the sidelines and seeing more of the game perhaps than the participants.”

But if there’s a game at the center (“centre” for you maple‑leafers) of Frye’s world, it’s got to be chess, which is largely an archetype of the Eros vision, but there are games in each of the quadrants of his HEAP scheme: “the game of athletic contest (the epic game) has its tonic in Adonis, the game of fate (cards) in Hermes, the game of chance (dice, divination) in Prometheus, & the game of strategy (chess & board games) in Eros.” This comes from The “Third Book” Notebooks, where the game of chess is very much on Frye’s mind. Otherwise, from here and there in the corpus, this sampler:


The writing kids produced a very pleasant story by Catharine Card, who is a really sweet girl. Darcy Green tells me that her shyness actually is neurotic & she’s been under psychiatric treatment. It’s a women’s magazine formula, but very nicely done. Gloria Thompson did a parody of My Last Duchess. I find having all that beauty & charm & health & youth in my office a bit overpowering: I find, not unnaturally, that I want to show off. I never worked that out of my system because, not being athletic, I couldn’t show off in the approved ways during the mating season. (Diaries, 28 February 1950)

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Frye, Favre, and Vettel: The Place of Sports in the Mythological Universe


Last weekend I found myself re-reading The Double Vision in between intervals of watching sports on TV.  Not only were all four major North American leagues in action on the same weekend, but there were a number of sports events that I was especially interested in: Paula Radcliffe’s attempt to win her fourth New York marathon, the last race of the Formula 1 season at the futuristic new track in Abu Dhabi, the NASCAR race at the legendary Talladega circuit, a Leafs-Canadiens game, and Brett Favre’s return to Green Bay as a Minnesota Viking. 

Northrop Frye does not give the impression of being someone who was much interested in sports, and I started wondering idly about the role of sports in ideas of liberal education (Newman says in the Idea of a University that “there are bodily exercises which are liberal, and mental exercises which are not so”), and about how sports would fit into Frye’s discussion of primary and secondary concerns.  The relationship between literature and sports is sometimes problematic: often in North American culture it is typified by in a comment I once overheard at a holiday party: “I hope you had a good Christmas, with no books and lots of sports equipment.”  But St. Paul was not averse to athletic metaphors, and Tom Brown’s Schooldays inspired a tradition of fiction that continues in the games of Quidditch in the Harry Potter books.  There is also a tradition of cultivating the body as well as the mind that finds expression in the Renaissance ideal of the courtier; I like to draw students’ attention to the fact that Sir Philip Sidney begins his “Apology for Poetry” with an anecdote concerning horsemanship.  The first time I ever heard of Marcel Proust was by reading an essay about sport in The Remembrance of Things Past in Sports Illustrated  (I kid you not: check out the SI Vault, 17 December 1973). 

Unlike critics such as Stanley Fish, Frye is not given to sporting metaphors, though one does turn up in an incidental way in The Double Vision.  Illustrating the difference between a purposeless and a purposeful repetition, Frye writes that the latter “is habit or practice repetition that leads to the acquiring of a skill, like practising a sport or a musical instrument” (52).  Of course, it is the musical example that he goes on to develop.  Because I teach at a university with a strong athletics programme, I often find myself using the sports analogy that Frye employs here, saying something along the lines of “There are a few people who are natural athletes and don’t need to practice, just as there are some people who are brilliant scholars who don’t need to study much, but most of us have to work hard to achieve anything.” 

In his discussion of the fulfillment of primary concerns in human civilization, Frye talks of the necessity for both work and play.  The latter “opens up a world of freedom and leisure out of which the typically human form of consciousness comes, and it produces the creative arts.”  The creative arts, in turn “set up models of what I have been calling primary concerns” (DV 28-9).  Can we say that sports transforms activities that exist in the world of nature, such as running away from predators or fighting for survival, into forms of play such as competitive running or football?  Are such forms of play models of primary concerns?  If sport is part of the fulfilling of primary concerns, does it too often get displaced into secondary concerns by economic factors or nationalism? 

I suppose one could also view sports as a kind of mythological world of its own, with its heroes and patterns of ascent and descent.  Commentators and analysts interpret the careers of athletes in terms of triumph and tragedy, disgrace and redemption.  If one wanted to view this negatively, one could view sports fanaticism as a kind of debased substitute religion; alternatively, one could that sports are part of a wider spiritual path for many.  In any case, it is hard not to see the analogies between sports and cultural archetypes: for example, I was teaching Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (“I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d / Greatly, have suffer’d greatly”) during one of Brett Favre’s “Will I retire or come back next year?” dramas. 

I wonder whether there are other Frye-reading sports fans out there, and if so what you have to say on this topic.  By the way, Paula Radcliffe came fourth in the marathon, the German whiz kid Sebastian Vettel won the Grand Prix, to place second in the World Championship, and Brett Favre beat his old team.