This is a strange essay for me to write. I grew up hating sports and athletes. I was a band nerd and very tired of the way athletes were lauded in my high school while the band struggled with busted instruments and old uniforms and the jibes of our classmates.
Then I lived in Japan twice. The second time, my then wife and I got into soccer. We started going to Yokohama Flugels soccer games, and we watched the World Cup on TV. When we moved back to the US, we started going to minor league baseball games in Savannah, Georgia, and eventually ended up as season ticket holders for the former NY/NJ MetroStars of Major League Soccer. My sister and wife and I also followed the US Men’s National Team around the East Coast and Midwest, and my whole family got up at stupid o’clock to watch World Cup games from distant time zones.
In the 15 or so years since then, I’ve become a fan of listening to baseball on the radio. I read books about sports. I follow soccer sometimes, though not as much. Every couple years I go through a period of sports talk radio listening, though these periods always end. I love going to minor league baseball games. I’ve even watched some college football games to stay in touch with friends in one of the college towns I lived in.
Recently, as in the past few years, I’ve noticed a trend among my fellow nerd friends to be very dismissive about sports. Lumping every sports into “sportsball” is a common expression of this. And this fall, this meme was very popular (insert “sports” or any particular sport for “football”):
When I first heard “sportsball” years ago, I thought it was funny. Nowadays I’m starting to find it tiring. I get it, you don’t like sports. But you know what? Many people do, and in healthy ways. And just like it would make you angry or hurt to have people be dismissive of your passion, it probably bothers some people to have you be dismissive of theirs.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to criticize about sports and sports culture. And I’m in no way suggesting we shouldn’t turn the same critical eye at the sports world that we should turn on every other facet of our shared lives. From the injuries in football, to the sexism and racism that pervades some sports, to the corporate behemoths who control much of the sporting world, you don’t have to look hard to find things to bemoan and to work to change. And you should.
But you also don’t have to look hard to find examples of bravery and heroism and compassion. From Muhammad Ali refusing the draft to this era’s Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, breaking every tennis record and doing it proudly despite the racist, sexist culture of the tennis world, sports provides a public platform for some people to transcend the advertising and the hype and become true leaders. John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Martina Navratilova. Jason Collins. Billie Jean King. Jim Brown. Arthur Ashe. These are just some of the people who’ve used their fame and success as athletes to stand for something larger than themselves. Our world would be a poorer place without them. And they took their stands in the one place most Americans end up looking — the sporting arena.
It’s fine to not like particular things about sports, and I don’t want you to keep your specific and necessary criticisms to yourself. For example, I don’t want my younger son playing football after this season is over because I think it’s too dangerous. A lot of the culture here in State College, home of Penn State, disgusts me, including the lionization (see what I did there?) of the football team at the expense of so much else. Ditto for the previous place I lived: Auburn, Alabama.
But don’t cast the same aspersions on all sports or athletic activity. There’s a real place in our society for sports. And good people who love them and do so in a healthy way. Let’s all work on remembering that. And let’s also work on making the sports world better for everyone involved.