Sports! *HUHH* (Good god, Y'all!) What are they good for?
The pinnacle of the North American sporting calendar is upon us, friends.
In just about a week and a half, the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles will play in Super Bowl LVII—an intriguing matchup between two very good teams with extremely passionate fanbases. It’s the culmination of a long journey for both teams, one that began in the dead of summer with training camps and will end in the frigid depths of February in Arizona.
But it’s also the culmination of a long journey for someone else—the most obnoxious person that you know.
[interrupting your conversation about last night’s game] Oh, did a sportsball happen?
You know this person. You’ve met this person. Maybe this person is someone close to you. (Perhaps you are this person). This is the person who is deeply and loudly smug about the fact that they do not watch sports. This fact sets them apart from the bejerseyed hoi polloi, they believe—places them in an intellectual tier far above the meatheads and mouthbreathers who get all worked up over a bunch of men in spandex beating each other senseless. It’s one thing not to watch sports—lots of people don’t—but this person has to let you know that they don’t at every opportunity.
To this person, I have two responses.
First, HEADS UP!
[whips dodgeball at them]
Second—nice dodge, by the way—I want you to understand what people like me are getting out of this.
I want you to understand what sports are good for.
Before we do, though, let’s get a few things out of the way. There are many bad things in sports, such as:
Public Funding of Stadiums
Every sports owner claims to need a new stadium to be profitable.
The truth is, owning a professional sports franchise is operating a money printer and the only way it can be made to appear unprofitable is through deeply creative accounting. Nevertheless, teams routinely swindle communities out of tax dollars through a combination of threats and bullshit promises of job creation that are just as creative as their bookkeeping. Also, every new stadium is a worse experience than the stadium it replaced.
No one should ever play football, probably. It is a dangerous sport and the long-term health effects are only beginning to be understood, and the NFL’s concern for mitigating these effects is an exercise in only doing exactly what you’re forced to and nothing more.
Excusal of Bad and/or Criminal Behavior by Athletes
Did you know that gambling on NFL games will get a player suspended for at least a year and possibly indefinitely, while a pattern of behavior that results in dozens of credible sexual assault allegations will only get you 11 games? The only behavior that will actually be punished by a professional athlete is behavior that undermines the financial model of the sport.
There’s nothing a corrupt and repressive regime loves more than hosting an international sporting event. How can you be mad about human rights violations when there’s all these banners hanging up?
So, yes. All of these things are very bad, and I assure you that many sports fans are just as mad about them as you are, and likely more. I personally severed a 40-year association with the Cleveland Browns—a team I grew up loving dearly and stuck with through a hell of a lot of losing through the decades—over the third bullet point this past offseason.
These things—rich and powerful people fleecing communities, employers ignoring workplace safety issues, powerful and popular men escaping accountability for their actions, and corrupt regimes using popular things to burnish their image—are hardly exclusive to the world of sports, though.
Have you seen society? It’s bad out there, man.
Let’s talk about what we actually get from sports, because it’s not nothing.
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Have you tried to make small talk with a colleague or casual acquaintance?
Once you get past the basics of weather (man, can you believe this weather?) and what your weekend plans are (oh, you know, catching up around the house, mostly), there’s only a precious few steps between where you stand and Talking About The News.
If I am at a construction site or a Cub Scout meeting or a neighborhood gathering, I’d damn well rather say “boy, the Cards sure are having a rough one this year” than find out what someone I will have to deal with again actually thinks about politics.
Oh, but you actually want to know what this general contractor’s political belief system is?
Don’t fret; sports can cover you there too. Spend a little time talking to someone about sports, and you’ll end up with a pretty good idea where they stand on a lot of other issues without actually having to talk about those issues.
Someone telling me that “I just think these athletes need to shut up and play” is like a jungle frog having neon purple skin. It’s a warning to not get too close.
The first two points are dancing around the heart of the matter.
When we get down to it, though, it is absolutely remarkable that anyone can do these things, and it is a joy to watch them do it. Every so often, a question will bounce around on social media to the effect of “if you played an entire NBA game, how many points would you score?” or “if you got 500 major league at-bats, how many hits would you get?” and the answer to all of these questions is “you would die”.
The things that top-level athletes can do are stunning and poetic and terrifying and beautiful and sometimes they inspire me enough to go downstairs and do a 20-minute low-impact Peloton ride.
I have met new people through sports, and forged real friendships as a result. I have maintained old friendships through sports long after those friendships might’ve withered for lack of contact. I have created lifelong memories watching sports with my parents, and I hope to forge those same kind of memories with my kids.
I would not give away sitting with my Dad in the south end zone at Ohio Stadium for my first-ever college football game and feeling the then-temporary bleachers sway terrifyingly side-to-side when the home team first scored. I would not give away hugging my Mom and screaming our lungs out in the stands at Jacobs Field when Cleveland won its first World Series game in both our lifetimes to that point. I would not give away my kids’ elation when their moribund hometown minor-league baseball team finally won a game after we’d attended a half-dozen losses. I would not give away singing “We Are The Champions” with friends and strangers alike on the field at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium at the end of an improbable and beautiful perfect season.
Those moments were all just silly games, sure, but they were time spent with people experiencing something remarkable together, moments where we will always remember who was with us when it happened.
It is not nothing to sit side-by-side and marvel at the unpredictable.
It’s a good replacement for harboring actual hatreds
I strive to be an open-minded person who accepts people for whoever they are.
I also harbor a blinding hatred of Miami University and Xavier University because their teams sometimes play mine and even beat them.
If you’ve gotta hate someone, it might as well be these two:
Look at them. Who the hell do they think they are?
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)