As a young comics-reader it was always a source of amazement to me that many people, both peers and elders, viewed superhero comics as silly escapism, and yet could turn on a dime and root for athletes who were "fighting" one another within the context of games that had no relation to real activities.
I was aware, of course, that to the sports-fan there was a "reality factor" to the struggles of athletes, particularly in the more conflict-based sports like football and boxing. The rules of the games might be contrived, but to the avid sports-fans, the struggles of the participants had a special reality to them. The players might not battling for food or to save society, but their professional lives, and therefore their personal prosperity, always hung in the balance.
On the other hand, it was equally plain to me that the fans did not primarily identify with, say, the home football team because they the fans wanted to see particular players be able to enjoy lives of wealth and prestige. The fans identified with the players in terms of what Levy-Bruhl called the "participation mystique:" Jung defines it thusly:
It denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.
In other words, even though no fan's individual life changed in any way because of the fact that the home team won, each fan felt personally validated when his chosen representatives succeeded. True, some fans' lives might be changed if they happened to place bets, either successful or unsuccessful, on a game's outcome, but betting activities are not part of the game proper, and certainly can't account for the appeal of the game as such.
So I sometimes asked-- to no one in particular-- how was the sports-fan's validation any different from the superhero-fan enjoying the thrill of seeing his favorite hero triumph over adversity? The answer again came down to the sports-fan's naive belief in the "reality" of what he saw on the playing-field.
I don't deny that, aside from things that fall under the heading of "fixed contests," the majority of sports-conflicts represent "real" contentions between athletes of various types, even though those contentions are circumscribed within an "unreal" context. Yet people forget that physical work by human beings, no less "real" than any athlete, behind the adventures of any fictional character, whether it's Superman or Hamlet. Popular characters like Superman are often read more as "play" than as "work," which is the way we now read HAMLET, whether or not that was the playwright's unvarnished intention. But neither superhero nor melancholy Dane is brought into being purely by the activity of play; work has to be done to give the character shape and direction.
Sports-figures are not "authored," though I would argue that when they do become famous-- or infamous-- their "real" actions take on hyper-real status though their way that their fans-- or their anti-fans-- view them through the lens of the participation mystique.
In the final analysis, the "reality factor" that causes sports-figures to receive societal approval might be better termed a "hyper-reality factor"-- as I will show in my examination of the DC work SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI.