Sir Robert Baden-Powell – founder of the Scouts, hero of Mafeking – thought so little of ‘looking on’ that he denounced it three times. He admitted that if he knew the men involved in a sport, or if he was watching a horse that he himself had trained, then watching became active, and was different. But in general, the rôle of what we would now call ‘the spectator’ was not one for a man emerging from the rutting season of adolescence, much less for one claiming a full manly stature.
The problem with watching is that it stunts doing. It is passive: an energy experienced only vicariously through the endeavour of others. Nothing is ventured, nothing is gained, not in terms of health, fortitude, esprit de corps, courage or valour. Any sense of achievement is borrowed; the adrenalin rush is second-hand. The sporting hero as aspirational figure becomes a mere idol; the spirit of emulation dies. Criticism follows: the overweight armchair punditry of ‘experts’ who know only how to talk.
America in particular could benefit by reading Baden-Powell. A good friend of mine tells me that the aggregate number of ‘fans’ who turned out for last Saturday’s college football games at Alabama and Auburn was 154,529. Perhaps there is a peculiar vested interest in ‘school spirit’ that ought not to be disparaged wholesale. But this kind of worship leads to further abdications of activity in later life unless we remind ourselves most self-consciously that we must not forget to do. For a man who does not, a man who merely looks on, is not much of a man in Baden-Powell’s book, of which, suffice to say, I am rather fond.