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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sports Culture (Semi-rant Warning)

College football season is upon us, along with pro football exhibition games, the end of the baseball season, and in October, the beginning of the NBA basketball season, to be followed closely by the beginning of college basketball. I know when all of these seasons start not because I actually care, but because so many people care far too much and spend far too much time talking about it. You can't turn on the TV or open a newspaper without seeing just how important sports are in our daily lives. From now until March, we will be inundated with opportunities to watch other people play sports.

I find our view of sports to be part of our obesity problem. Sports and fitness are viewed as something for athletes rather than as something for the common man. Invariably, sports are for the young, rather than for the old. Once you hit 30, you're more likely to be watching sports than participating in them. At a young age, we teach our kids to be the best in their sport or get out of it. Parents today push their kids to specialize in and train for football or basketball or baseball year-round rather than playing football in the fall, basketball in winter, running track and field in spring, and playing baseball in the summer. Experimentation is out as parents push their kids to become a big name in something, to become the star that they themselves weren't. Check out this article (found on Mark Sisson's blog) about an 8-year old girl that has been forced to run 2200 miles in the past 2 months to satisfy her father's desire to get her in the 2016 Olympics. Sure that's an extreme example, but parent's living vicariously through their kids athletic endeavors sets sport up for failure as we drive the fun out of sport, which is essentially a game.

We've turned sport into a grueling endeavor, devoid of fun. I'm not talking the "Kum By Yah," we-don't-need-to-keep-score-because-we're-all-winners-for-playing attitude. Hey, I'm one of the most competitive people I know, somewhat to a fault. When I'm engaged in sports (or unfortunately board games or it a vice), I'm playing to win, but I'm playing fair and having a good time. And if I lose, I don't feel bad about myself and if I win, I don't gloat over the vanquished suckers that took a drubbing. Teaching people about healthy competition, along with teamwork and getting some activity, is the intent of sports. The business of sports is what's ruining it. The prevailing thought seems to be "if you aren't going pro, there's no point in playing," so we sit on our collective rumps and watch others play college sports and pro sports, while we get fatter and less athletic. And I can't help but laugh at the people that can recite every sports stat for the last 10 years but can't run down a basketball court once. There seems to be an inverse proportion of sports knowledge and athletic ability.

Now, I'm not saying not to enjoy watching the local college team play a game or not to knock back a couple frosty beers with your friends on a Saturday to watch some football. But so many people are engaged all year long with keeping track of the recruiting, meticulously scrutinizing every stat, and arguing about which team will be better and who will beat whom. Why do people spend so much time and get so worked up over a team full of kids (18-22 year olds) that they've never met, will probably never meet, and who could give a flip if they ever meet a fan at all? In A Bronx Tale Sonny says something to the effect of, "You think if your father couldn't pay his rent that Mickey Mantle would care? Would Mickey Mantle pay your rent? Mickey Mantle makes $200,000 a year - he don't care about you, why care about him? Nobody cares." It's an illustrative point. The coach, the players, the whole team doesn't even know that the individual fans exist and were the fans to actually not exist, little would change. Why should we invest so much energy in them?

People get far too worked up over something that they really have no vested interest in. I can understand being a big-time fan if you're the coach's wife or mother, a relative of a player, or affiliated with the school. I have a friend that is such a big fan of the University of Louisville that if they lose a game, his day is ruined. If it's noon, he will go home and pout or go to bed. Why relegate so much control of your life to something that you have no control over? And then there's the xenophobic aspect, ingrained in the human animal to distrust all who aren't of our group (politicians play this aspect of human nature very well), to automatically think negatively of people that cheer for the rival. I heard one guy talk about getting in fights with fans of the other team at bars. That sounds like a wholly healthful endeavor; what a good way to spend a Saturday! I always thought sports were intended as a means of meeting people and sharing camaraderie, even with the opposition.

I guess I've just grown out of it. I was a die hard University of Kentucky fan all through my childhood, pretty much up until the time I graduated with my bachelor's degree (from rival U of Louisville ironically). At that point, I realized that I was older than most of the players and began transitioning away from caring (not really consciously, just kind of the path I took). I'm an alum of the University of Notre Dame as well, definitely some of the most loyal and vocal fans in the nation. During the year I was in school there, I got into the spirit, but since then, I don't really care. I watch the games if it's convenient. I don't rearrange my life to make sure I don't miss a single game. If I'm around with nothing to do, I'll turn it on. And while they're on, I get into it and cheer and enjoy myself. And when the game is over, win or lose, my life is completely unaffected. I don't spend the next week rehashing the game or reminiscing on the big plays or yammering about "what ifs". My involvement in college sports (I don't even pay attention to pro sports...couldn't tell you who plays for which team) is confined to the few hours that it is on, more approaching the level of disinterested observer than rabid fan. I discovered last year that I didn't know the name of any of the UK basketball players for half the season.

I would much rather get up, get out, and do something active for myself than be a passive spectator. If you give me a choice of going for a long hike or ski trip through the month of March or watching every March Madness Tournament game, guess which one I'll take. I'll be long gone by the time the first game tips off and won't care that I don't see a single one. I'd miss the Championship Game if I had something else to be doing. Unfortunately, I'm probably in a minority that would give up the ability to watch all of the games and keep precise tabs on the outcomes. Any guy that proclaims to not really care too much about sports is suspect in our culture where every red-blooded American male is taught that, by golly, if you're going to be a REAL man, you spend Saturday and Sunday pinned to the TV watching football, drinking beer, and eating Cheesy Poofs.

Please, for the love of humanity, stop talking about Barry Bonds and his alleged steroid use (note that it has only been truly proven in our "guilty until found innocent" media environment). It doesn't affect you and it doesn't affect me. As I said, I don't take issue with people that just sit down and watch their favorite team play. Hell, I sat down to watch yesterday's beating at the hands of Georgia Tech with a Honker's Ale and some blue corn chips and habanero salsa (which was delicious!). Notre Dame got killed and my blood pressure never rose. I didn't yell, scream, or allow it to affect my life. Nor did I have anything else to do having already hit the farmer's market, the grocery, and done an intense workout. I was free to just sit and watch, knowing that the more important things in life were taken care of.

But following the recruiting and arguing all week about the upcoming game or the just played game or who's going to win the Heisman or who's going to win the National Championship is ridiculous. One other thing that REALLY irks me: the use of "we" in reference to a team. Fans of every school say "we just scored," "we won," etc. No, "we" didn't do a thing. Those guys on the field (or court) won. You had no involvement whatsoever in their win. You may think you're an integral part of the team, but you're not. You're just one of millions of people that place great importance on the athletic achievements of others.

I just wish people would devote as much time to their own health as they devote to cheering for (and defending) a team that they don't play on. And let your kids play every sport if they want to. It doesn't matter if they're the A-One player on the team as long as they are able to go out, have fun, and get some exercise with friends. Perhaps that would help clear up some of our country's mounting health issues.

Fantasy Sports....well, I'm not even going to go there. Can sports spectatorship get any more pathetic than playing a game based around watching other people play a game? I guess I just went there.

Thoughts? Anyone? My flame suit is ready for the fury I may have just incited.