In Defense of Sport

A few days ago, I posted to twitter (shameless plug: @jtjarzemsky): “Part of growing up: when you see somebody you respect say something foolish and can’t change their mind, leave them be.” Well, I decided to go back on that bit of advice, since this is something’s that’s been bothering me for a while now.

 I wasn’t always into sports. Like most creative, maladjusted teenagers, I considered myself above things that everybody else liked, and since I grew up in Dallas, Texas, sports definitely fell under this heading. The thing was, I topped six feet tall at fourteen or fifteen, and definitely caught the eye of all our football and basketball coaches. In the end, I wound up dabbling a bit in track and cross country, but I still never held athletics in very high regard.

 This changed, partially, when I went off to college in Boston. The year was 2004, and for anybody with passing knowledge of baseball, the year that the perennially unlucky Boston Red Sox finally bested the New York Yankees in the post-season and went on to win the World Series for the first time since 1918.

 I wanted to fit in, since I knew only one other person from back home, and since I was living outside of Texas for the first time in my entire life. If you’re from outside the area, let me shed a little light: the northeast, and New England in particular, is crazy about baseball. Back in Texas, the name of the game was football, and I had mild interest in basketball after Mark Cuban rehabilitated the formerly embarrassing Mavericks. Still, a group activity that I could bond with my floormates over? Something that cost no money? Perfect.

 At first, I only watched games out of some sort of social obligation, but as the Red Sox moved deeper into the post-season, the fever started to grip me in earnest. I had rotted in right field the few years I played baseball in middle school and junior high, had only a passing knowledge of the rules, and knew nothing of the rosters of any team, not even my own Texas Rangers. Soon though, I was looking forward to every game with real anticipation, obsessively reading commentary on ESPN.com, and reveling in the sometimes friendly, often bitter fights and arguments that broke out between the native New England kids (Red Sox loyalists all) and the decent New York contingent (take a wild guess).

 Anyways, that fall was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Baseball is an amazing sport to watch by virtue of the bone-crushing tension that mounts when two incredibly talented teams and coaches take aim at one another, and the tall order of coming back from a 3-0 deficit cranks that tension to 11.

 So, wrapping up a very long intro, I had found good cause to enjoy sports: the camaraderie, the social aspects, the excitement, and the pleasures of fandom. However, getting back to the original “something foolish”, not everybody feels this way. The tweet I quoted at the top was in response to a friend of mine, somebody whom I respect a great deal, and thus shall remain anonymous. He fired off a number of tweets basically supporting the now fashionable position that sports, athletics, and athletes are at the very best, trivial, and at the worst, a waste of time and attention. The undercurrent seems to suggest a widely held view that sports are not for smart or otherwise cultured people.

 It wasn’t always the case. In literature especially, a great number of very intelligent and gifted authors often wrote obsessively and intelligently on the subject of sports or were themselves athletes at one point in life (Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, John Irving, et al). As time’s gone on, we’ve seemed to forgotten that sports are culture.

 In fact, I’ve even detected a certain animosity, less noticeable in the older and more intelligent, towards athletes or even those with a particular affinity for enjoying sports. More than one person in my social media feeds rolled their eyes and made pithy comments about the apparent worthlessness of this year’s Olympic Games, arguing that the “deification” (their word, not mine) of athletes was shameful when taken in conjunction with the relatively poor treatment of teachers, scientists, artists, et al.

 First, a point of order: it is true that appreciation of sports requires perhaps a less trained and educated mind than say, appreciation of interstellar travel or the Hadron collider. Isn’t this cultural elitism of the worst kind? Correlation is not causation, a fact that those who deride athletics and sports fandom as contributing to the “dumbing down” of American culture would do well to remember.

 Secondly, the supposition that reaching the zenith of athletic accomplishment is somehow less difficult or worthy of praise than say, being a great artist, is incorrect, and reflects poorly on the intelligence those who hold such a wrong-headed view. The general (inaccurate) consensus is that sports are unimpressive because sports are games of chance, that mastery of the body precludes mastery of the mind, or that athletic prowess is something anybody could accomplish if they put their minds to it.

 Let’s tackle the first, and most obvious misconception. Sports, at least, the most popular American sports, are not games of chance at all, but games of skill and strategy. Those who excel at simply “putting a ball in a hoop” or “hitting a ball with a stick” are not extremely lucky, they are extremely talented and committed to physical excellence. The coaches who oversee these athletes are not taking shots in the dark (most of the time), they are strategizing based on hours upon countless hours of painstaking research, analysis, and relying on their ability to read and respond to situations  with fully developed tactical changes within minutes. Chance and randomness, is of course, an element of sports, as it is with almost any facet of life.

 Anybody who has even spent time in a gym knows how incredibly difficult even staying in moderate shape is. It doesn’t take a master of critical thinking to realize that maintaining the physique required for professional sports is not only physically demanding to an absurd degree, but it requires a steadfast conviction that one is a master of one’s own body. Psychological resilience is key to any great athlete’s legacy, and even if most professional athletes might not possess the shrewdness, introspection, or education available to those who aren’t spending six days per week in a gym, the sheer willpower and toughness needed for athletic greatness is, if nothing else, a great indicator of character. And, as we all know, intelligence can exist without character.

 The idea that “anybody” could ascend to the upper echelons of professional sports is akin to the philistine who looks at a piece of abstract art and declares that “anyone” could have painted it. While technically true, both statements belie an ugly jealousy and shame of one’s own inability to achieve.

 While sports and athletics do unfortunately come packaged in a culture that is largely geared towards the lowest common denominator, this should be expected of any enterprise generating as much revenue as the sports industry does in the United States (I would get into debunking the argument that most athletes are “spoiled millionaires”, but this essay is already running long). However, the achievements of athletes should not be lost amidst the noise of brain-dead beer commercials.

 Sports and athletes are valuable in that they are a reflection of the potential of human beings. The linebacker who comes off the block as quickly as an Olympic sprinter, the gymnast who contorts her body in ways that would seem impossible if one weren’t watching with their own eyes, these people are no less indicative of the pure, awesome power of the human spirit than someone who paints an extraordinary picture or reads a poem that moves one to tears. The critics of sports, on the outside looking in, often deride fandom as the celebration of one team of strangers beating another team of strangers, but that’s really only part of the equation.

 When I was in Boston during the “four days in October”, I felt elated partly because Boston was my new home, the Red Sox my new team, and it always feels good when your team does an incredible job. However, the reason a kid from Texas with little use for baseball before 2004 cheered was not only so he’d have an experience to share with his roommate from Sharon, MA. The 2004 Red Sox, and so many other amazing athletes and coaches before them, elicited cheers and elation and awe because they make us realize, again and again, that we are capable of anything.

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