The previous week’s thaw combined with the recent freeze to make large potato chips out of the frozen sections of snow and thin layers of ice. The crunch of every step would break multiple sheets, but never so much as to leave an imprint on the eighteen inches of ice below. It felt like you could see forever on the frozen lake, but look back after trudging for ten minutes and your starting point was immersed in fog, illusory curtains covering the recent past.
The plan was simple. I’d leave Saturday morning, and my brother would meet me halfway. From there, we’d travel to his ice fishing hut that was less than an hour’s drive from his home. In the days leading up to our excursion, my brother would send pictures of the inside of the hut. It had a heater, fishing rods, tools I’d never seen before and whiskey. It also had a tiny grill.
I asked him if it was for cooking the fish that we’d catch, and he let me down gently, “Oh, we won’t catch any fish to eat.”
My brother and I lead drastically different lives. He’s country. I’m city. The population of his town is under 10,000. Mine is over 2.5 million. He has cross-stitching and family photos on the walls of his house. I have movie posters and art work on mine. He can build stuff with lumber. I worry about splinters. He owns a fully stocked chest freezer. The inventory of the freezer atop my fridge consists of ice cubes, vodka and a couple of dark chocolate bars I’ll never eat.
Despite the overwhelming amount of differences between us, we share a similar outlook on life. Generally content to watch it unfold, we’re spectators deriving no shortage of amusement from all of the hullabaloo that others cause. This characteristic occasionally extends beyond a healthy detachment, but on the whole it seems a better perspective than most alternatives.
Our common viewpoint makes for a friendship that extends beyond brotherly bonds. However, we don’t easily arrive at discussions about the deeper feelings we share. This past weekend, isolated on the lake with my closest kin, I realized how much the two of us depended on sports as an appetizer for the larger courses of conversation.
As someone who struggles to reconcile their hours spent obsessing over sports with an awareness that sports are mostly just a distraction, this was important to me.
I like sports. They interest me. I gain the same pleasures from watching a good game as others might looking at a piece of fine art, seeing a film, reading a novel or listening to a piece of music. It can be emotionally exhausting. It can be intellectually stimulating. From time to time, things can happen in sports culture that cause reflection and prompt growth in me and others. However, I accept that for the most part, sports represent a worthless endeavor. They’re an escape and a distraction.
Nonetheless, I make my living writing about sports and editing what others write about sports. I’m not only a consumer, I’m also a retailer. I have my hands in several aspects of the sports supply chain. If sports are as worthless as they seem, I’m complicit its wasteful proliferation. And so, I seek out this type of justification for what I do. Admittedly, it can be forced from time to time, but it helps me rationalize what I do.
After a day of fishing netted us nothing more than several dead minnows and laughter over my skittish handling of a squirmy small perch that I had to release back into the cold water, we went to my brother’s house to watch a hockey game and drink beer. As the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens, we reminisced about growing up together, talked about getting older and compared lives in a supportive, uncompetitive way that’s likely only possible with siblings.
The next day, we drank more beer and watched two football games. We discussed our ambitions, joked about our families and told anecdotes about our wives and the peculiar ways they try to make us better human beings. Nostalgia. Reflection. Future plans. It all seemed so very ‘adult’ of us, and only possible because of sports offering us a gateway to communication, a means by which meaningless conversation might drift toward meaningful.
If this was the best of what sports offers us, I realized the worst on the train ride back to my home.
At the conclusion of Sunday’s late game, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tipped a pass meant for San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree into the arms of an intercepting teammate. The play ended San Francisco’s chances at a comeback, and essentially won the game for Seattle. Following the play, Sherman followed Crabtree across the end zone, and condescendingly patted his backside. This was met with a shove from the receiver which prompted the cornerback to make a choking gesture directed at 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Then, in the post game interview, Sherman went off on Crabtree in a monologue that was immediately compared to the staged trash-talking of professional wrestling.
Watching the moment live, my brother and I laughed. It was probably inappropriate, but also completely hilarious. Minutes after it occurred, I had completely forgotten about it. Now, on the train ride back to the city, my social media feeds were erupting in opinions on the subject. By the time I had caught up, the main arguments had been fortified into two trenches: 1) Sherman was an indecent human whose horrible lack of sportsmanship was the worst thing to happen to America since Obamacare; and 2) If you had problems with what Sherman did, you were a horrible racist whose inherent xenophobic tendencies made you an intolerant monster.
The lack of middle ground was humorous at first, but the fun evaporated over a week of op-eds marginalizing the opinions of others. It was sports being used as a divider rather than something that might bring people together. Like drinking a glass of milk before eating an orange, a weekend of experiencing Sports The Good made Sports The Bad especially distasteful.
Personally, I was entertained by Sherman’s mugging, but I understand why others might be offended for reasons other than inherent racism. For most of us schlubs, sports are about inclusion. We probably played some form of organized sport as a kid, and we weren’t very gifted at it, but we were allowed to play anyway. We played with other ungifted athletes and had fun, and never wanted wanted to show up anyone, lest we be shown up by another. It was a fair trade-off for those of us who weren’t elite, and we called this concession sportsmanship.
The problem is that sportsmanship has no place in the elite levels of professional sports. No matter how vicarious our relationship with athletes get, our own experiences of competition never approach the elite’s. Moving up the ranks of a sport as a youth is almost entirely about exclusion instead of inclusion, and once the highest summit is attained – the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, etc. – the exclusive pack of athletes that made it this far are expected to be a spectacle for all of the lesser talents above whom they rose. This is what made the intending to be hyperbolic comparisons to WWE – as though the NFL isn’t as much a well-manicured production as professional wrestling – so unsurprisingly accurate and mockable.
However, instead of having real discussions about sportsmanship, spectacle and our own expectations, sports fans delved into a prolonged bout of name-calling. You’re immoral. You’re a racist. Blah, blah, blah.
Both sides are horribly at fault in the presentation of their beliefs. One side refuses to exhibit the smallest amount of curiosity, while the other comes across as far too eager to use cultural theory as a means of shaming subjects they can trample to elevate their own self-worth. Instead of discussions for the sake of personal growth, we’re left with big bad snaps aimed at collecting the most high-fives from the cadre of believers already convinced of their own correctness.
I understand that urge. I feel it, too. Proving someone wrong, and yourself right feels really good. In some sense, it’s a competition, and success or failure is like winning or losing. The people that share your perspective are your fans, and you want to make them happy. Unfortunately, competitive arguing, while sometimes entertaining, is probably not going to convince anyone to change their mind, or inspire any growth in anyone involved.
We’re all so easily fogged in on the ice, holding tight in our stupid little huts with like-minded individuals, fishing for thoughts, and more often than not coming up with things that would be better served by throwing back from where it came. So very few of us have achieved anything close to a status as an elite thinker, so perhaps, just maybe, we shouldn’t be so dismissive of what we consider lesser thoughts.
That’s not to promote false equivalencies, but rather an urging to step outside of ourselves and our social media brothers once in a while to consider perspectives other than our own. We have to remember that our interactions in social media are often with individuals of like mind. This has the potential to skew our understanding of what’s generally accepted through the over-confirmation of beliefs we already hold to be true.
Stepping outside of the shelter can be enlightening and disappointing. Most disappointingly for me was that all of the good I had imagined as being inherent to sports after a weekend of bonding with my brother dissipated. Sports became just another thing in which humans can use to do good, or use to do bad. It’s a neutral cultural phenomenon that we all help shape.
Just please shape it my way.