Sunday, February 1, 2009

What is it about sports?

On the day of the Super Bowl - arguably the biggest sporting event in the USA every year - I'm reflecting on why I even care about this or any other sport. My athleticism borders on the non-existent. The only sport I ever was decent at was tennis, and then only marginally so.

My participation is mostly limited to being a spectator. My favorites are: college football, college wrestling, baseball (not via TV, though), and drag racing. Pro football is mildly interesting but to me it pales in comparison to college football - that might be the topic for another blog someday.

I'm not certain I understand what I get from watching sport, but I think I can articulate some aspects of it that I enjoy, so here goes.


Ever since my first year at OU as a grad student, I found that being at the game - as opposed to watching via TV - created an atmosphere of fun. It was enjoyable to go crazy along with tens of thousands of other people. There's a sort of psychological relief tied to "letting go" and being in the moment. Other parts of life are put aside as you forget about "self" and your problems for a time. The disappointments are a price to paid for the high times, of course. Each event is another chance for excitement and tension followed by release - sometimes the bitter taste of defeat, and other times the overwhelming joy of victory. Intoxicating. My analytical side suggests this is just chemicals in the body. But who cares? It's just plain fun. I assume that being a participant is also fun, perhaps markedly more so, despite my quite limited experience.


Speaking of my analytical side, every sport involves analysis. There are numbers to be collected and subjected to analysis and interpretation. Rules to be known. Insights to be gained from careful consideration of past events. Knowing the sport requires reading and developing an understanding about the subtleties. Being aware of the subtleties appeals to me. Anyone can see the obvious, but I enjoy digging deeper and finding that "common knowledge" includes misconceptions and myths that aren't consistent with a careful analysis. After all, I am a scientist.

Not being a participant means my knowledge is always limited. There certainly are many parts of sport that can only be known to those actually doing it. The closest I ever came to being a serious participant was as a manager for my high school wrestling team (long story!). No doubt that experience made me a collegiate wrestling fan for life. I'm confident there's a lot I don't understand about the sports I follow. It would be a disappointment to come to know it all, I suppose ...

Life Lessons

Before you groan over this one, hear me out. I see much of sport as containing allegories with the real game of life. Work ethics. Subordination of the self for the benefit of all. Accepting responsibility for your own actions. Moving past frustration and failures. The will to succeed coming from within yourself. I could devote many paragraphs to providing examples, but the point is that sports can contain life lessons, if that aspect of sport is pointed out to the participants. Clearly, sports aren't life and death events and it's certainly possible to take them far too seriously, but they also represent an opportunity to teach people about life. Good coaches always focus on more than just the game - they teach their players about how to live their lives outside of sports, as well.

The Dark Side of Sports

When fans and players take sport too seriously, a line has been crossed. One of the things I like about most participants in a sport is their sportsmanship. After the event, people who were bitter rivals during the game can still be friends. They can be happy when their friends succeed, even when it's at their own expense. The fans of the sport cross the line when they hate their rivals, and the fans of their rivals. Hating is the where the line resides. OU has a long-term rivalry with UTx and each side desperately wants to win the game between them. But some of my friends are UTx fans. Should I choose to repudiate our friendship over this? Sorry, but that's where I draw the line. I respect my friends and their choice of a rival team has the same origins as my choice for OU. Remember the golden rule, folks! Have fun with it - don't give in to the dark side ...