“Sports are stupid.” “I’m not interested in sports.” “It’s so boring, the same thing all the time; you just change the colors of the uniforms and the shape of the ball.”
Lately, my Facebook page has been littered with complaints and memes against sports. Although I consider myself a sports fan, I’m sympathetic. At certain times of the year, sports can be overwhelming, and right now is one of those times. We just came out of a rather historic college football championship (Yay, Big Ten!). We’re in the midst of the NFL playoffs (Go, Colts!). Both the NBA and college basketball are in full swing (Pacers! Hoosiers! Bulldogs!). It’s hockey season, and baseball clubs are gearing up for spring training. To top it all off, there’s some big story in the news about a race car driver with an assassin ex-girlfriend?
“Too much sports!” my anti-athletic friends cry. I get it. Truly, I do.
As I said, I consider myself a sports fan, but to be honest, I follow only football and basketball, a little baseball, and even less tennis. Hockey, soccer, golf, and auto racing leave me cold. As a native of Indianapolis, I get a lot of crap for that last one. So when my friends whine about being bored with or tired of sports, I sympathize.
Still, there are moments when people tend toward pride in their disdain for all things sport. There’s a tinge of snobbery in their voices when they announce, “I don’t know anything about football/baseball/basketball/etc..” That’s when I get a little less sympathetic.
For various complex reasons I won’t detail, I spent much of this week with academics – PhD candidates, tenured professors, and deans. Though I teach at a university, this is not the circle I usually run with. They are nice people; most of the people in my department are fun and friendly, despite their obscene educations. Most of the time I spent with them over the last few days was quite enjoyable as we interviewed job candidates. I realized a couple things, though, that jump-started my thinking on this whole sports topic. First, I’m one of the few Indianapolis natives in my department; true academics bounce around a lot. Second, many true academics pride themselves on not following sports.
Since we were interviewing out-of-towners and sports are one of Indy’s biggest claims to fame, the conversations occasionally tended toward things like the Indy Motor Speedway, the Super Bowl, Lucas Oil Stadium, and Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. Inevitably, I would comment on these topics with some fact I thought was safe (“The Colts are playing the Patriots in the AFC Championship this weekend.”), and the whole table would look at me like I’d just sprouted a unicorn horn from my forehead. I would then clam up for the next fifteen minutes. I know many of these very educated people are so immersed in their fields of research that they rarely have time for frivolous activities of any kind, but it’s their pride in knowing nothing about sports that surprised me. Many of our students love sports. Many of my fellow faculty and staffers at the university love sports, so spurning them as worthless feels a bit unkind.
Some of my FB friends express similar contempt, though for different reasons. They love art, music, “the theater.” They see sports as the antithesis of these things, a competitor for fans and funding. For them, sports vs. high culture is an “or” proposition, in much the same way Christian fundamentalists view evolution vs. creationism. But I know many people, like myself, who love both high art and sports. I can go to the opera or the symphony on Saturday night, then spend Sunday in front of the TV, screaming obscenities at the NFL refs. For me and many of my fellow sports fans, these two worlds are not mutually exclusive.
Sports are certainly as much a part of the human experience as art. The ancient Greeks and Romans gave us both, as did the Egyptians, Aztecs, and Mayans. Both athletes and artists have been revered for millennia, and they actually have a lot in common. Both work hard for physical perfection, practice constantly, and have their every move scrutinized by fans and media. Sure, those at the tops of their professions make ridiculous salaries. Do NFL players deserve multi-million dollar contracts? I don’t know. But they are entertainers just like Oscar-winning filmmakers and actors who often rival or surpass these athletes in salary. Both fields are so demanding that people at the top rarely stay there for long. Bright careers burn briefly in sports as well as art.
Both art and athletics teach valuable lessons effectively: teamwork, discipline, strategy, and focus. Throughout our educations, most American students are given opportunities to participate in plays, art classes, musical performances, and myriad sports. Many of us do both. (I dated a guy who played football AND marched in the marching band. At halftime, he played trumpet while wearing his football uniform.) All these experiences are valuable and value many of the same attributes. To disdain sports while revering the arts is rather short-sighted.
Though most of us will not go into a profession in art or sports, we can still benefit from both. One of the things I love most about sports is how they foster a sense of community. Go to a ballgame and look around. You’ll see people of all colors, creeds, and backgrounds. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, Christian, atheist, Republican, Democrat, anarchist – they can’t agree on anything outside the stadium or gymnasium or ballfield. But while that game is going on, they’re all on the same team (or maybe two teams). For me, sports are a great way to find common ground. I can walk into a party where I don’t know a soul and start chatting with anyone in a team hat or school t-shirt. “Oh, did you go to Miami or are you a fan? Pretty cool how they beat Duke the other night, huh?” Twenty-minute conversation starter.
Do sports create problems? Domestic violence? Cheating? Fan-on-fan brawls? Of course. It’s a human endeavor. If a human is involved, there will be problems, just as there are cheating and plagiarism in academia, copyright infringement and exploitation in the arts.
I understand how people can get tired of sports they don’t like. I understand the need to protect oneself from the onslaught of football/basketball/auto racing talk. Outright scorn, however, is narrow-minded. Sports offer many benefits, especially in a country struggling with obesity. Perhaps a little hero worship of Lebron James or Peyton Manning will get chubby Charlie off the couch and outside to play a little ball. That’s not a bad thing, nor is the stress relief that engaging in or watching sports can provide.
Over the holidays, my husband’s dear sister passed away at the ripe old age of 48, after a painful battle with cancer. She left behind a loving husband and two grieving teenagers. To add to this good time, family politics put my husband and his brother in a very uncomfortable position. We had to inform our two children that the remainder of their holiday break would be spent on the road to frigid, frosty New England and at funeral gatherings with lots of sad people they didn’t know. That week was awful in pretty much every way you can imagine. As we tried to drive home, we hit a snowstorm that slowed us to a crawl. I was keeping our worried families updated on our progress via text messages, and I was relaying a litany of woes to my sister.
“At least the Colts won!” she texted back.
And in spite of all the sadness, stress, and difficulties of the week, I smiled.
Stupid? Maybe. But we all need a stupid reason to smile once in a while. If nothing else, sports can give us that.