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Put The Fun Back In It

March 28, 2012

When I was a kid I would spend hours kicking a soccer ball against our garage wall and practicing my goalie skills on the rebound. Sometimes I’d throw a tennis ball at the wooden quarter-pipe my father had built instead. It was athletic meditation for a country kid without a playmate. It was the only way I had to play catch.

Then, around 13, I got a big brother. My older sister’s friend Autumn moved in for six glorious months while his mother toured India or went on some similar adventure. I don’t remember; in any case he was there. And to my delight Autumn was just as happy to toss a football as he was to canoodle with my sister. When it rained we’d sit in opposite corners of my room and throw it back and forth, making up rules like Calvin and Hobbes did. When it was sunny we’d do it outside.

That year our team won the Super Bowl, and after the game we went to the beach and pretended we were the winning touchdown tandem. One of us would sprint toward an oncoming wave and the other would throw the football. If it worked just right, the receiver would leap into the air, catch the football, and get pounded by the wave. If it didn’t, well, they got pounded anyway. It’s a man’s game.

I never actually played football (that’s a story for another time) and didn’t get into basketball until my mid-20’s. I was surprised to discover how enjoyable it was – or could be. Some of the games I joined were ultra-competitive and devolved into arguments and swearing and flagrant roughness. Not all. Recently I joined a weekly game for over-the-hill guys who need the exercise. It’s indoors. The vibe is pleasant. Nobody cares too much if you’re not that good. Nobody takes the competition too seriously. It’s fun.

And that is what sports are supposed to be. Fun. Recreation. Re-creation. A chance to step away from your life – and yourself – through physical exertion on an arbitrary goal. When did sports stop being fun?

I have two answers – one personal and one general. Sports stopped being fun for me the day of the Speech (previously mentioned in the rant Letting go of Grudges). On that day it became clear that organized sports were about something other than enjoyment. I didn’t understand our Coach’s motivation at the time, but I think I do now. Coach needed his athletes to perform. The school was lobbying for a new athletic facility and had to show an impressive body of work. Coach was motivated by money.

Sports stopped being fun when it became a business. When making money became more important than playing the game. When players were turned into pawns and shuffled between cities at a moment’s notice. When these same ball players were paid more money than most of their fans saw in a lifetime.

The results of this transition are everywhere – gambling fixes, recruiting scandals, player strikes, owner lockouts, media warfare. Coaches last an average of three years in professional American sports. College athletes goof off and get away with it – if they’re good enough to turn pro.

Fans are just as much at fault. If their team is winning they’ll overlook all sorts of disreputable behaviors. So will the owners, as long as they’re making money. But both are quick to turn on their team – or team member, or coach – if things aren’t going well.

Call me different, but I would rather watch the same group of locals struggle year after year than support an ever-varying combination of aloof super-stars achieve some meaningless measure of success.

I don’t know if it’s possible anymore. Just like they did on the playgrounds at recess, the most talented athletes are manipulating the system so they end up on the same teams. These sport-corps are putting the smaller markets – the ma and pa teams – in danger of going out of business. The owners need to appease their fans. And that means fixing it every time it breaks. Even if it can’t be fixed.

Fortunately the sports market itself has provided me with an excuse to stop tracking our local team’s current devolvement into irrelevancy: I recently heard of a study which claimed following a losing team raises the possibility of heart disease. So for health’s sake I’ve become a bandwagon fan. I’ve stopped watching sports and started playing them again.

Incidentally, both Autumn and I landed in Portland. He has twin boys just months younger than my daughter and is still throwing a football. Or kicking a soccer ball. Autumn is deep into his second boyhood, while at our house Eva would rather turn cartwheels. I haven’t tried to throw her a ball in mid-turn and get the feeling it wouldn’t go over too well. Ahem.

By the way, Autumn – if you’re reading this – the score is still Q to 12.


From → Rants

  1. Yeah but were still tied and up one.

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