Putting Sport (Back) In Its Place

Einstein admitted that his early attempts at the theory of relativity suffered from a serious defect: himself. Well, not Albert specifically, but the scientist as observer. The accuracy of any observation of motion depended on the point of view or the motion of the observer. Even if he were standing still, the earth he was standing on was moving him through the universe, and that necessarily changed his perspective and the observation.

Still, he forged ahead, and so will I. As I age, it’s hard to figure whether my distaste for certain current events arises from each generation’s natural tsk-ing at the next, or from the fact that things really are screwed up. I will leave that judgment, and my curmudgeon status, to whatever theory of generational relativity you subscribe to.

The latest sneer-inducing potato peel of pop culture to come my way was a promotional announcement on the local cable network’s sports channel. The breathless set of clichés that passed for a script labored at getting our hearts going for 15 seconds…over a high school no-hitter. Some local kid had thrown his seventh no-no in a recent baseball game.

“You saw it on Bright House…history…being made…”. Umpire calls strike three, kids pile on the pitcher. Euphoria, the peak of life (at 17!), a moment not to be missed! Ah!

History? The Challenger explosion, the 2000 election, the Civil War…that’s history. The no-hitter kid has about as much chance of making it in the Major Leagues as…me. High-school no-hitters are much more common than the pro variety. What’s the huge deal? It’s certainly not history, even if no one has done it before. I could eat 15 burritos, and it may be temporarily remarkable, but it’s not history.

Instead, it would be a digestive debacle not far removed from the discomfort I feel at seeing sports turned completely upside-down. In less than a half century, we have seen the business of sports, with its inevitable promotion, all but erase the recreational aspect of physical games.

“But…but…you’re in the sports industry!” I hear you say. “How can you bite the golf-gloved hand that feeds you?” It’s easy. It’s not the sporting goods industry that’s to blame. All we have been doing is trying to provide implements to make recreational games more satisfying. We can’t help it if not enough of you play.

Well, why aren’t more people (read: kids) playing? The clues are on the athletic fields — specifically, in what’s not happening on them. I notice fields as I pass by. From Toronto to Tallahassee, Savannah to San Diego, I see more empty fields on weekends than I did 10 or 20 years ago.

Where are the pickup games? Remember those? Pick teams, play. Baseball, softball, football (one of my old friends used to put packing foam under the sleeves of his jersey and encourage us to play helmetless tackle), soccer, anything. We tried, huffed, sweated, disputed, settled it, learned fair play — in short, discovered the joy in recreation, all without an adult in sight.

Ah, the adults. The mentors, the presiders, the organizers. How, oh how, did we ever have sports without them? The practices, the carefully worked-out schedules of which moms brought snacks when, the regimented hierarchy of flow-charted achievement. Oh dear. Must catch my under-aerobically-fit breath.

O.K., I’ll be fair. There are a lot of excellent, well-intentioned youth sports coaches out there. (One humorless fellow I know overcame his reticent personality and not only coached, but volunteered to maintain the local Little League fields, a huge job.) But it seems as if for every one of those, there are 10 big-bellied badasses, fuckheads with fungoes, scaring the crap out of a gaggle of 7-year-olds who are just trying to remember to get their gloves down and beat the natural aversion to projectiles bouncing toward them at high speeds.

“Y’all got tuh git dose, er Ahmo fine some-un who will.” I have heard coaches speak to children like this. And we’re surprised that Call of Duty and a bag of chips is a more comfortable option?

It is, of course, the finely honed American desire to win every single time that leads to this attitude — the willing acceptance that victory in recreational sports is as important as in the theater-business of pro sports, that effort alone is the province of field-fillers, losers, and sissies.

Even in sports without a discernible finish line, we have inserted absurd markers for “victory.” Competitive fishing? I don’t think even Einstein could have wrapped his mind around that. I know I can’t. And physical fitness: working out now is so goal-oriented (lose weight, lift x pounds, get washboard abs, you name it) that the idea of a lifetime of habitual fitness gets funny looks. (And it’s everywhere. Lifetime runners can’t understand why someone would train for a marathon, run it, and then quit running. Yet it happens a lot in modern times. Why? Yep, people just want to say at cocktail parties that they ran a marathon. Or worse yet, put a 26.2 sticker on the back of their cars.)

The real bacterium that’s eating into our consciousness about sports can easily be isolated. Ask any kid, even adult, who is heavily involved in a sport this one question: No matter what happens in your sport, are you most of the time having fun? They will answer. You will know if they are lying.

Ask what they want to achieve, and in many cases, they’ll start their answer before you finish the question. Scholarship. Pro career. Win. Beat. Dominate. Humiliate. And in their eyes, you may see the saddest answer: Please Dad. Mom. Set another benchmark. Let’s do something together.

Pro career? About as likely as a hole-in-one, and a scholarship isn’t much more likely than that. And once they get there, if they do — what will be their recreation? Do they get any?

Perhaps that’s the ultimate revenge of the nerds. Those whose ambitions leaned toward, say, a career in medicine instead of a six years as a middle linebacker, those who the travel-team coaches ignored because they couldn’t make the cut, may have managed to find games to play for the best reason.

Because when you’re working on something worthwhile for a long time, it’s good to get out and have some fun.

You know. Recreation. –Adam Barr

Copyright 2012 Adam Barr

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