Tuesday, November 15, 2011

800 Words: My Case Against Sports

I do not hate sports. In high school, I wrestled for three trimesters, I ran cross country for two semesters, I even played guard on the line in football (though not at all by choice).... More on all that in a moment. But more importantly, for many years I was a fanatically devoted Orioles fan who would watch or listen to every game, no matter how depressing or dull. I would probably go back to being an O’s fanatic at the drop of a hat if I thought that baseball were again a game worth following again and not a corrupt cesspool that respects artificial brawn over intelligent strategy. So whatever else I say in this piece, please believe me when I say that I have experienced more moments of the kind of adrenaline and bliss which only sports can provide than I could ever remember. I love many things about sports: I love the dignity and self-respect it can give to people who play them well, I love the way it brings communities together, I love how love of the same team can draw together demographics who would otherwise have virulent hatred of each other. Most importantly, I love that people I love love it. I love how it helps bring families together around a common event. No matter what else is going on, the Ravens game will always be something important you go out of your way to talk about with your family. So when I say that sports has always been an incalculably important and valuable part of my life, I really, really mean it. Even if I resent the hell out of nearly everything else about it.

I am not an athlete, and I seem to have been reminded of this fact at every point in my life. I’m told that when I was two years old, a bunch of kids in my pre-school would play with various balls, and I would move to whatever part of the room would be furthest away from them. When I was nine years old, in a single game I struck out three times with the bases loaded and missed a key throw that cost us the game. I cried on the bench as my coach yelled at me about how I clearly wanted to ‘pick daisies’ rather than concentrate on playing ball. When I was thirteen, I would regularly get into fistfights with other kids in my grade because I missed a crucial play during recess football. Needless to say, I’d lose the fights. When I was sixteen, my high school required us all to play a sport. Since I didn’t make the JV soccer team, I was forced to play JV football. To toughen me up, the coach had me be a much repeated contestant for ‘bull in the ring.’ For those who have never played 'bull in the ring', here's how we played it: The entire Varsity team would surround me in a circle. And from any direction any one of them could run up to me to tackle. Putting me in the middle was almost like a pastime for the team.

I certainly had a more decent time being a wrestler and cross country runner than I ever did in football, but by then I hated every single thing about playing sports. I swore that after I reached college there was not a single person in the world who could make me play any sport ever again. My current physique is my reward for that promise, and even now that I’ve long since tried to get back ‘on the wagon’, every attempt to get back into physical activity is eventually hampered by something that triggers those old memories.

As I never seem to tire of writing, I grew up in what most people would consider a model community: with values that can ensure a successful, fulfilling life for anyone capable of following the teachings espoused to us every day. Yet even in this alleged paradise, no one could possibly convince kids or adolescents that any pecking order mattered besides athletic prowess. If the kids who excelled at sports were angry difficult kids, as some were from my class, it made grade school a difficult, fearful place to go to grow up. If the kids who excelled at sports were kind, generous kids who always went out of their way to make others feel welcome, just as my brothers were models of to their classes, it would be as wonderful a place to grow up as advertised. Just as in any community without values, might makes right. And if the strongest person doesn’t see the necessity of right, there is no protection from might. Perhaps it’s a vain hope that people will realize that after the horror of the Penn State scandal revealed itself.

I don’t hate sports, I just hate that sports is the yardstick by which we measure so many aspects of achievement in our lives. I have no doubt that physical acumen is the primary way by which we’re genetically predisposed to measure status (unless civilization instructs us to do otherwise). But as with so many other aspects of human nature - the competitive urge is loathsome and disgusting, even if it’s inevitable.

In my ear I can hear the mock-outrage that this blogpost will probably not provoke in anyone. ‘What is there about sports that’s inherently harmful?’ You protest to me. ‘Sports build resolve, they increase health, they instill a better work ethic, they socialize kids, they teach the value of cooperation.’ And my only response can be that, of course, every word of that is true. Sports teach all of that, but there is absolutely nothing about sports that inherently teaches people to respect people from the other team. And what resolve is necessary for an athlete if there is no enemy to defeat? You might learn about resolve and respect if your coach is a good man, but what if he isn’t?

So if it’s not a given that coaches are any better measure of decency than any other profession, why do we allow the average Division I Football Coach to make twenty-five times as much money as the average Professor? I do not know the answer to that except to say that human nature sucks, and that sports does more to bring out the worst aspects of our natures than nearly any other everyday activity. We might similarly ask some other questions: Why is it that every time we read about a Columbine situation, students will always tell us that jocks had full rein to act exactly as they pleased? Why did a 1969 soccer match between El Salvador and Honduras lead to war between the two countries? Why is it that when Slobadan Milosevic wanted thugs for an elite Serbian force with no compunction to using torture and rape as weapons of war, he knew that the best place to recruit them was Pristina City Stadium in Kosovo? Why is it that every India-Pakistan cricket match seems to make the world fearful that it could be a prelude to a nuclear exchange?

Human nature is incredibly screwed up. It can band people together in a confluence of cooperation, commonality, purpose, prosperity, and good will - and utilize all those wonderful qualities to effect at an attempt of the total annihilation of others. One doesn’t need to bring all sorts of fascist governments who worshipped sports into the discussion to see how that works.

Sports is a measure of people’s security. We can say that sports is a meaningless diversion, but it clearly isn’t. In countries that are ethnically more homogeneous than ours, people often use it as a measure of their country’s physical prowess. If the greatest athletes in the country lose a game, it’s a slight upon the masculinity of the whole country - and one that must be avenged (remember Andres Escobar? The Columbian goalie in the ‘94 World Cup who was murdered for the crime of kicking into his own goal?).

Even in America, where we are far too ethnically diverse for such measurements, it is still a measure of financial security. As with everything else in America, we are convinced that success in life is something to be bought. The phenomenon of the sports hero who stays in one city barely exists anymore: we import our computer parts and vegetables, why not our sports stars too? If our town can buy LeBron James and Chris Bosh, we know that business will eventually boom again, because the cycle can perpetuate itself: We have enough money to buy what it takes to be successful, and the fact that we have what it takes to be successful will mean that millions of dollars will be pumped into the city’s economy every year. Everybody goes home a winner. But what if our town isn’t rich or smart or lucky enough to have a contending team, what hope do we have then?

Inevitably, somebody has to lose. Art and entertainment might be a poor substitute for the excitement of sports, but part of the reason people are bored by art is that there are no losers. When it comes to the arts, success or failure is purely a matter of opinion. One person’s poison is another’s elixir. But no amount of excellent play by losers will change that sports almost always has a winner and a loser, and the outcome of those games will define the lives of those who played it and cared about it forever. Whether or not life truly has winners or losers, sports has taught billions of people that it most certainly does.

And once again, the cycle can now perpetuate itself. There are 7 million less jobs in America than there were in 2007. What will these newly unemployed people do? Hopefully they’ll find new jobs, but until then, many of them will watch sports. Those who can afford basic cable can find games most any day on some channel. If they don't have access to TV, they can still call in to any of the sports talk radio stations in their area. And if they need a quicker dose, they can turn to ESPN. If they can still afford premium cable, they can get ESPN 2, ESPN 3, ESPN Classic, ESPNews, ESPN Plus, ESPNU, ESPN Plus. To say nothing of Fox Sports, TSN and any number of pay-per-view events. The intellectual effort they could be devoting to analyzing problems within their control will be devoted to analyzing the statistical probabilities of games whose outcome they cannot control. In the absence of a job, games will be that much more important to their self-image. If their teams win, they might have hope to keep fighting another day. If their teams lose, that will be just another defeat handed them by life.

And while their lives grow dimmer as they consume more and more sports, the teams they hate grow richer and richer. In 2005, American Sports was a $215 billion-a-year business: twice the size of the American auto industry. It netted roughly a billion dollars in endorsements, $27 billion in advertising, $35 billion in sporting goods, $3 billion in facility construction, $10 billion in licenced goods, $7 billion from broadcasting, $15 billion in professional services, $13 billion in medical spending, $16 billion in travel, $6 billion in sponsorships, $2 billion in multimedia, $19 billion in gambling, and $23 billion in operating expenses. Since 2005, these number can only have grown astronomically. In an era when most American industry is declining, this is one of the only multi-billion dollar industries that does not have a government agency to regulate it. Sports, like capitalism, is a fantastic thing when strict rules are placed upon what it’s can do. But when unchecked by law, it becomes as bad as human nature itself - greedy, barbarous, and cruel.

Sports doesn’t suck, human nature does - both can be endlessly fascinating, but I resent it when people say that sports is something which inherently makes us nobler, better people. Sports is a reflection of the nature within every one of us, and human nature sucks. But far too often, sports can be our greatest reminder of just how much human nature sucks. If America falls off the precipice on which it’s teetering, it won’t because of too much passion in politics, it will be because of too little. People who should have been concerned with the plight of the country were watching ESPN. Some ESPN watchers got scared when FOX News told them to be scared, and they didn’t know that they shouldn’t be because they were too busy watching sports. Some ESPN viewers didn’t realize that FOX News convinced other ESPN watchers to be scared, and they didn’t know that they should be because they were too busy watching sports.

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