227673There was a specific point in my life when I understood that I wasn’t nearly as clever as I had previously believed myself to be. This is likely not a unique phenomenon. In fact, I’m fairly confident most of us refer to this realization as “growing up.” Instead of evolutionary metaphors, I liken it to a headache stopping, because it seems to happen suddenly, but recalling the exact moment it occurred is impossible. Nonetheless, one’s condition is greatly improved after it happens.

It’s an introduction to doubt, a term that seems to possess a negative connotation for many, but for me it’s a positive governing force. It causes introspection and prompts me to take stock of my internal inventory from time to time. This is a necessity for someone who tends to develop tunnel vision that directs them toward a specific goal at the cost of everything else on the periphery.

My latest binge of self-examination began last week when my fiancé’s grandfather died. We weren’t particularly close. I had only interacted with him a handful of times. However, as a result of his death – as untimely as one’s end can be after more than 80 years of life – I spent several days around people whom I care a great deal about while they were mourning. After a dragged out process that included three separate days for a visitation, a funeral and a burial, I began to realize that what I felt for those around me was sympathy and not empathy.

The difference between these two often confused terms is that sympathy refers to an acknowledgement of another person’s emotional state, while empathy refers to an understanding of what someone else is feeling because you have experienced it yourself. I’ve been fortunate enough to have never experienced the type of sadness felt by losing a loved one.

By now, you’re probably saying “Cool story, bro;” or asking, “So, what does this pedantic bit of pseudo-psychological self-indulgence have to do with sports?” Bear with me for just a little bit longer.

As I reflected on my lack of experience with death, I came upon a pathetic realization that the losses to which I was most familiar with had to do with sports. In fact, I was certain that I had probably even used the term “heart-breaking loss” before to describe the outcome of a game. Such an exaggerated description was rendered suddenly disgusting.

All around me was real pain and genuine agony, and the only way I could relate to it was through a role that I portray as a sports fan. It was quite possibly the least authentic moment of my life, and it prompted questions in me about what I was doing, to what was I contributing with my existence, and if I was comfortable in the direction that I was heading.

Not helping matters was a recent issue of The New Yorker, in which an excerpt from Here and Now: Letters (2008–2011), a book of correspondence between the authors Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee, was published. The portion that the magazine shares with its readers is a communication between the two revolving around watching sports and participating in competition.

The letters, dressed in pretension and antiquated formalities, use multiple-syllable words as though they were the feathers of a peacock. Worse than the grandiose style is the ulterior motivation behind the format being used. Through the letters, the authors seem to be using each other as literary devices for the sake of communicating ideas in a casual environment that doesn’t require proof. This leads to more than one instance in which the correspondence reads more like the ramblings of a philosopher hobo than well-articulated thoughts.

However, Auster and Coetzee are the type of writers whose understanding of motivations and impulses allows even their most banal conversations to produce points of interest. Nonetheless, it seems that even these giants of the literary world couldn’t quite explain the appeal of sports to an obsessed spectator.

I concede, it is a waste of time. I have an experience (a secondhand experience), but it does me no good that I can detect. I learn nothing. I come away with nothing.

- J.M. Coetzee to Paul Auster.

I agree with you that it is a useless activity, an utter waste of time. And yet how many hours of my life have I wasted in precisely this way, how many afternoons have I squandered just as you did on December 28th? The total count is no doubt appalling, and merely to think about it fills me with embarrassment.

- Paul Auster to J.M. Coetzee.

The piece served to amplify my questions. How do I reconcile the hours spent obsessing over sports with an awareness, not only of the vicarious relationship to the athletes that they watch, but also the amount of time spent on an endeavor that’s at best distracting, and at worst, a complete and utter waste?

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 emotional. It can be intellectual. From time to time, things can happen in sports culture that cause reflection and prompt growth in me and others. However, I’m aware that for the most part, sports represent a worthless endeavor. They’re an escape and a distraction.

This realization hits hardest when I get home from a long day of reading, thinking and writing about sports, when I feel accomplished in the ideas that I formulated and expressed. It’s at these moments that I’ll read an investigative report that reveals some form of corruption or social injustice that affects thousands of people in the real world, and it makes me feel like an immense piece of dump, completely uncomfortable in the understanding of how meaningless sports are. While others write about wars being waged over democracy, the “most important” story in sports was about a college kid’s fake girlfriend.

But then, the next day, the San Francisco Giants will be scheduled to play, or the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens will be completing a home and home series, or the Miami Heat will be getting set to destroy the opposition, or the Denver Broncos will be visiting Indianapolis to play the Colts, and such things seem important once again.

Coetzee supposes that “the residue of  … juvenile fantasy … fuels adult attachment to sport,” but I see little in common with how I consumed sports as a child and how I do it now. All of the delusions I held to be true in the past have since been crushed, I understand appeals to a higher being to allow my team to win are futile, I no longer suppose any athlete to be a hero and I comprehend the role that randomization and probability play in the outcome … but I keep coming back and placing undue importance on a meaningless exercise.

Adding to this for me personally is that I now make my living writing about sports. I’m not only a consumer, I’m also a producer and retailer. In fact, I have my hands in almost every aspect of the sports supply chain. If sports are the rummage that they suddenly seem, I am complicit in multiple aspects of its wasteful proliferation.

I remember having similar feelings about a year ago. A couple of years prior to that, I had left a position with a communications consultancy group that specialized in political affairs, to write about baseball. In my mind, it was something of an experiment: Would this be something that could make me happy? Eventually, circumstances arose that would make writing about sports less experimental and more of a career, and I wasn’t exactly sure of how I felt about that.

It all seemed so unimportant, but at the same time I loved it. And it was difficult to reconcile those two things. I was reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre’s example of bad faith, wherein a café waiter whose actions, which are described as being a little too “waiteresque,” reveal that he is only acting as a waiter. He is aware that he is more, but he consciously deceives himself in order to function.

The importance that I placed on sports seemed like a deception, but it was one that I wilfully and consciously embraced, not only for the sake of employment, but also my own personal amusement. So, I asked a sports writer for whom I have the utmost respect, how he dealt with the meaningless of what we did. He gave me honest and valuable advice.

Just about every morning after a work night I think about the insignificance of what I do and the number of times I have transcribed the same quotes and written the same story over the years. That feeling usually lasts until the next night’s game, and gradually, I realize how fortunate I am to have this as my career.

But that’s just me. You don’t sound like your pangs about the horrible unimportance of sports keep you awake at night. Or maybe they do. Only you can say how much that bothers you. I can’t suggest short cuts, but I’m a great believer in following your instincts, and in making sure you recognize the need to create new challenges for yourself, whether within, outside or beyond your current job. Long ago, I discovered how important it is to fend off boredom and complacency by forcing myself to do something a little scary now and then.

I read these words again, now, and I realize that just as sports are as important as we decide, they’re also as unimportant as we decide. The difficulties I might have with the significance of sports, in what I do as a fan and a writer, aren’t about sports as much as they are about me.

Dismissing our fascination as only a distraction is a decision that ignores what could be and dismisses the value of shifting focus. I touched on it earlier, but sports are every bit as capable as art in its ability to alter our path and prompt growth. It can invite introspection and give us insight as a metaphor for things that have an impact on reality. It can inspire, and it can contribute to empathy. It can help us understand and reach new ideas. Losing oneself in a meaningless pursuit isn’t necessarily meaningless. There’s value to distraction in that it can contribute to a clearer focus.

As part of the sports supply chain, I have an opportunity to present it in this fashion. The outcomes of individual games or events may not be all that important, but our challenge is to justify the amount of time and energy we spend in the pursuit of rooting for a team by applying the lessons we learn from games to a real and genuine life, lived with a renewed vigor thanks to the outlet that sports are capable of providing.

Most importantly, it’s fun. At least most of the time, it makes us happy. Enjoying a reprieve from all of the horrible things in the world isn’t a bad thing, especially if it grants us the energy in both mind and body to fight against the things we’d sooner forget. If I can help readers do that, I should feel honored. If I can do it for myself, I should feel capable of fulfilling that duty.

At the beginning of this hopefully helpful bit of self-indulgence, I suggested that realization is synonymous with growing up. Perhaps realizing the capabilities of sports as a form of high art on an ever changing stage, a necessary distraction from our struggles, and a source for personal renewal might result in a more grown up sports fan. A fanatico, maybe?

Comments (23)

  1. Thanks buddy. I’ve always felt this way about sports, specifically hockey, but I’m not sure I could’ve expressed it as you have here. Well done.

  2. Your essay is a nice microcosm on the general leap from nihilism to absurdism.

    Emotion gives meaning to everything and all emotion is subjective.

  3. Yep, this describes exactly how I feel even if I didn’t quite know I felt that way. Excellently put.

  4. Very good article, thanks for writing. I try to practice moderation, it’s easy to lose perspective by becoming too invested in some things, sports included.

    But what sports provide for me, in the games that are played, is an open ended story. Every game is an unscripted (hopefully) story to which we can collectively share an experience and sometimes see feats of athletic achievement that entertain.

  5. Excellent article. Good writing is always refreshing.

  6. As someone who’s trying to enter a similar profession, I found myself thinking the exact same thing. Really, really well done.

  7. Fantastic, Parkes. I definitely feel a similar way, as a guy racing towards his mid-20s. At worst it’s a morbid panic, at best it’s a “should I really spend this much time doing this?” guilt. Then I get asked “do you watch [insert crap show here]?” I often reply “no, and I barely have time, I watch a lot of sports.” Lately I’ve had the same reflections about how I consume sports as opposed to when I was 8 year olds. Advanced stats in baseball fascinates me. Formations and the use of space in soccer fascinates me. I write a damn tennis blog While this might feel a bit like useless brain power, it’s an attempt to analyze and interpret the thing that helps give me an escape. We all need that, and I would much rather be doing that then simply watching another crap TV sitcom.

  8. Well written, Dustin, another excellent piece, and the self-awareness makes it sharper. The role that sports has in our lives does change as it gets older. It’s always escapism in some form (unless you do it for a living), and it can help to understand where and how it fits.

  9. Thanks for opening my eyes to this, Dustin. I’ve often wondered the same thing myself … in the grand scheme of things, sports is one of the most unimportant things … and yet its held in such a high regard.

    It has always baffled me how professional athletes make millions upon millions of dollars, when true difference makers like doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers and even teachers are paid considerably less.

    The world could survive without athletes. I don’t think the world could survive without the likes of doctors and police officers.

    I know all this may come off as me sounding like a sports hater (I’m the farthest thing from it, I swear), but just don’t understand the societal progression to where sports are today.

    I guess what it’s all about is sports provides an escape. For those 2-3 hours of game time, everything around you just fades away and you live in the moment. It’s an expensive escape at that, but it is one nonetheless.

    Viva la sports.

    • Ian I think you bring up an interesting point, that being the price of our escape. The vast gap in earnings between professional athletes and doctors is most certainly tragic, and I think it speaks volumes as to how much society today values escapism from day-to-day life. Shit, that’s even more depressing.

      • I know … when you think about it, the fact that we put these guys up on pedestals and yet they’re cutting back on doctors, nurses, and health care is truly tragic.

        Sure, it’s great to check out a game, but at the end of the day, our health and safety should be things that take the highest priority. Sports should be way down the list of priorities.

  10. Thanks for this, Dustin. I’ve often wondered these things myself … why sports are held in such high regard as they are today. Because in the grand scheme of things, they really are unimportant.

    I’ve always been baffled how athletes make millions upon millions of dollars, and yet difference makers like doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers and even teachers make considerably less money than people who play a game.

    The world would survive without sports … I don’t know if it could continue without doctors or police officers.

    I guess what it all boils down to is sports provides an escape. For those 2-3 hours of game time, everything around you (good and bad) ceases to exist. It’s an expensive outlet, but an escape from the everyday nonetheless.

  11. I empathize. Those “important” non-sports stories that I love to read evoke the same guilt pangs you describe, Dustin. And while I accept that sport is relatively unimportant, it is not without value.

    Escape can be just what the doctor ordered. And in any walk of life, play is important. We do it in many forms – daydreaming, casual conversation, social media, watching and talking about sports, sweaty competition as a weekend warrior or a professional athlete. In all of those ventures, as elsewhere in life, the interaction can be uplifting and it can be ugly. We get to choose our camp.

    We need to play, and those who care about sport are playing. Those of us who get paid to write about play are playing in our own way, although it sure feels like hard work a lot of the time.

    The trick is to maintain a life balance, and for some of us, that is hard.

    A fine piece, Dustin.

    • I guess we don’t have to guess too much over what other sports writer Parkes is writing about. Hahaha.

  12. Another nice piece Parkes.

  13. This is a rather amazing article. I have often analyzed my own fascination with sports. I always felt that sports were a testament to the human spirit, heralding both triumph and defeat. Some of the most incredible stories ever told are those of sport. When you scratch away at the surface and get past the superficial, sport gives life to love and hate, greed and giving, passion, desire and all other things that drive human will. Though at first glance it may seem meaningless, it’s not just about putting more pucks in the net than the other team or how many more guys you can get to run across the same plate, it’s a reflection of our successes and failures. It’s how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others. Watching sports is like watching all of us. And I find great meaning in that.

  14. I just bookmarked the snot out of this

  15. I do agree with you about your ‘things have the meaning we give them’ agrument. On the one hand. On the other hand I think that, while it is easy to reflect upon sports and understand that while we get wrapped up in them they are ultimately unimportant, upon further reflection sports are actually fairly essential to us as a society.

    The first statement seems to say that sports are fun but we could slough them off if we wanted and dedicate ourselves to things that really mattered. I don’t really think this is true. As you compared earlier sports to art and music saying they serve a similar function. Try to imagine the rest of your life without ever listening to music again or looking at a picture again. I would find that completely unlivable. We know that as people we are capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions from extacy to dispair but in daily life these are very unhelpful and inconvienient. In fact if you were feeling all the sways and pulls of these emotions all the time you could barely function in our society. The constant daily grind of our lives never gives us a place to let off these emotions this is the place of art, music etc. To not only allow yourself to be pulled for a time by the emotions you know you are capable of but also to contemplate an object of beauty simply for what it is and not for what it can do for us.

    Sports do the same thing but they have the potential do bring in the added aspect of experiencing these things communally. What this does is that it equalizes people. When one team beats another their fans celebrate in unison and the fans of the losing team dispair in unison. Anyone can be a fan of a sports team and most people are from janitors at mcdonalds to corporate execs, or if that team is from chicago the prisident of the US. A person isn’t a better fan for being more successful in other parts of their lives. What sports through their communal fan experience is to temporarily suspend the typical hierarchy of our society. I don’t think that society could go on the way it is without sports allowing so many people to experience intense emotions communally regardless of social status.

    Of course in other ways sports reinforce social hierarchies but nothing is perfect and we are talking about how totally rad sports are here.

  16. I often find myself annoyed with the fanaticism and idealism my friends place on sports. They regard LeBron and Durant as equally important and heroic as a political or cultural icon such as MLK (exaggeration); but the point is the same.

    I think the realization that, in the end, sports are not ultimately as important to the welfare of humanity as other pursuits is an important one to acknowledge. However, this does not mean they are a “waste” or an unworthy pursuit.

    You obviously have a gift for writing about them and contemplating their place in society to the end of entertaining and helping others contemplate their significance.

    From a strictly utilitarian perspective, if you believe this is the best way you can serve the world – produce the most joy for others and yourself, then your efforts are not in vain. If, on the other hand, you feel that you can do more, then go forth and try to do so. If you fail at other endeavors, come back to sports journalism. We will have missed you and welcome you back with open arms.

  17. Wrestling with something similar as I watch my limited spare time getting eaten up by baseball. And as that time could be used to improve my art, I wonder what is it that I’m getting out of baseball? A wise person suggested to me that by looking at our passions we can see deeply into who we are. I still haven’t figured out the connection.

    For you I can see it more clearly. At your best, you’re using sports to shine light on the human condition, much in the same way we do as artists. You’ve come a long way from the guy who wrote about picking up chicks (and we know I’m classing up what you actually wrote) at a ball game. But because you’ve been that guy, you’re able to be a bridge between different parts of fandom. There’s value in that.

    Arts and sports can inspire and comfort. In that way they are just as important as any occupation.

  18. Beautifully and articulately written. Thank you.

    I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that after several years of noticing sports on the sidelines of my life, I have become more and more “nut-like” in my behaviour and am completely unable to deny any charge of being a “sports fan.” The first time I was called that, I was shocked, though I had just gone on a lengthy tirade about the resemblance of a certain hockey club to a diving team, followed by a treatise on the greatness of Roger Federer. However, when a friend confessed to me that she never bothers to phone me during IIHF tournments, the Olympics or NHL playoffs, I had to admit it: my name is Carly, and I am a sports fan.

    It saddens me, though, to think that those “esteemed” gentleman could find nothing of any value in their experience watching sports. The experience can be the point in itself. Sports are somewhat akin to the arts; they are essential to our understanding of humanity, morality, and community. We gain insight into codes of conduct, are given lessons on the dangers of excess, watch power and money corrupt, hold game-day gatherings, and weep with joy or dismay at the end. It’s not merely escapism; it’s catharsis, a much needed release, (particularly now when the world occasionally seems like a playground for faux-intellectuals arguing about amendments and who is justified in killing whom.) A sporting experience is a collective event. It doesn’t happen just on an individual level. Even if you were by yourself, you weren’t the only one watching. It’s communal. We talk about it afterwards. We write or read about it. For those without a religious affiliation, sports may be our only spiritual outlet or experience of faith, (and that can be interpreted as either sad or a saving grace.)

    I know a few doctors and nurses, and I myself am a teacher. I’ve had to fight for recognition of the value of the arts, and the importance of education. I’ve listened as fellow teachers reach the burnout point, wondering what the use is in what we do. And I’ve watched doctors become depressed and nurses turn maudlin on the subject of healing when each and every one of us will someday die no matter what interventions we offer. Even the “important” people have crises of faith, and quite frankly, everyone is both far more important and far less important than they believe themselves to be. Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages of this world is that you never quite know what contribution you’ve made at the end of it. We very rarely get to see what impact we’ve had, or who we’ve helped or harmed. But that’s why they call it faith.

  19. Common sense just isn’t all that popular.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *