The Meaning of Sports

Reliable sources report that there’s some sort of governmental event going on this week in Washington, D.C. But anyone who has cable TV knows that the really big news is that the NFL Divisional Finalists have been set, and either the Pittsburgh Steelers or Arizona Cardinals will win the upcoming Super Bowl. 

Lest you scoff, try to understand why this matters a lot more than some politician’s airy orations about Hope and Change. The only thing that really counts for anything in sports, notwithstanding the cliched hoo-hah about giving it your best effort, and all the other effete nostrums embraced by losers, is winning. Not coincidentally, the only thing that really counts for anything in a market-based capitalist society is winning. Ergo, what happens in the NBA, NHL, NCAA, FIFA, and every other professional sports league on the planet, is essentially more vital (at least symbolically) than all the speeches, poems, and economic stimulus plans on Capitol Hill.

Off the athletic field, the once pure definition of “winning,” which, in less reflective times, meant “amassing more money than everyone else,” has been gradually perverted by unorthodox interpretations of success, allowing concepts such as “happiness” and “spiritual fulfillment” into the conversation. These days, unless you shield your eyes with a copy of the Wall Street Journal, it’s hard to tell the winners from the losers, since merely being rich no longer gets you a free pass into the Hall of Fame.

In the sports world, though, everything is simple and clear. If you win, you’re a winner. And if you’re a winner, people will pay lots of money to watch you win. So the concerns that nag us non-athletes — like “finding a balance,” “leaving the world a better place,” “being kind” — may be safely ignored in favor of bigger, faster, stronger.

I’ve been watching more televised sports lately than any time in the past five years. Even more than when I was a professional sport bettor. (As I explain in my book “The Smart Money,” watching too many games when I was betting distracted me from the really meaningful information, the statistical numbers.) What started as a harmless distraction while brushing my teeth before bed has become a mild fascination with the essential heroes of our time, the athletes and coaches and general managers and referees and mascots and fans whose lifelong dedication to a child’s game is compelling proof that something Very Important is happening every night in stadiums and arenas all around America. And if you think I’m exaggerating, you probably haven’t experienced the quasi-religious fervor of the cast of ESPN’s SportsCenter.

The older I get – recently I’ve moved into the mid-forties demographic — the less interested I am in the physical exploits of the beautiful combatants and the more I’m interested in the strategic and tactical battles that occur on each snap or pitch or shot of the ball. After seeing a few weeks of “Top Plays,” the astonishing and amazing loses its sheen, like pornography viewed repeatedly. But the challenge of breaking a well-constructed zone defense or determining if going for it on 4th-and-short is the right call with less than two minutes to play in the first half — these are avenues of inquiry that never grow stale. One never completely masters chess; one never executes a perfect game plan. This is why grown men can watch and discuss, and discuss and watch baseball for their entire life. Complete understanding is a process, never a result.

Listening closely to the expert color commentators, I’m afraid, is no guarantee of wisdom. Having worked in this role on a number of poker broadcasts, I’m hip to the dual challenge of explaining complex ideas in a way that the uninitiated can understand while simultaneously avoiding insults to the intelligence of experienced viewers. But my recent spate of sports-watching has exposed several alarming (and annoying) trends. The majority of commentators, whether football or otherwise, seem to have graduated from the School of Madden, where regular guy inarticulateness is supposed to imply sincerity and accessibility. To my ear, those announcers who preface every other statement with the phrase “You talk about a guy who” are almost as insufferable as those who employ “you know” as promiscuously as a gymnast and his talcum powder. Granted, most of these cats are ex-players and coaches, not writers and performers. But still. They’re awful. I like Jeff Van Gundy and Hubie Brown on the NBA and Johnny Miller on golf and Dan Fouts on college football. But the greatest sports commentator of all time, Dennis Miller, was run out of the booth by the hordes of philistines who are intimidated by a cute historical reference and who actually enjoy Big John and his stammering, stumbling, sound-effect laden analysis. Now, in place of wit, we get cliche; in place of insight, we get weird parables about “work ethic,” “teamwork,” and all the other stale chestnuts that are supposed to make watching sports a salutary pursuit.

Paying too much attention to the broadcasts has the deleterious effect of making one realize what a monstrous waste of time all this sports-watching is. One should be reading, or composing, or pressure-washing the patio. One should be doing something. But how comforting it is, how reassuring to know that Kobe and LeBron, Donovan and Peyton, Derek and Manny, are working so conscientiously to become the winners that we can never be.

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