Why sports matter

Whenever a Boston team does well, my Facebook feed blows up. (I have good friends.) People celebrate, say how happy they are, and cheer on whatever team happens to be playing. When the Bruins recently won the Stanley Cup my feed was full of happy friends. And I certainly contributed to the celebration. It’s something special to see a favorite team win a championship.

But there’s always one or two people who have to be Debbie Downers. One update I saw was pretty typical: ‘It’s just a game, people’ (paraphrased). Or take PZ’s post about the Vancouver riots:

Some team in Canada won the Stanley Cup, which prompted happy revelers to…riot and destroy public property?

He eventually corrected his post to reflect the fact that Vancouver lost (How you like them apples, Luongo?), but such inaccuracy reflects the level of concern PZ has for sports. That particular post doesn’t demonstrate his indifference adequately, but anyone who follows Pharyngula knows PZ is not a sports guy.

And that’s fine. I happen to really enjoy sports – I can watch just about anything that isn’t soccer – but I don’t expect everyone to love them. To each his own, right? But what I don’t like is the dismissal of sports as unimportant.

Let’s go back to that status update. “It’s just a game” is the common refrain of those who believe they have the greatest of perspectives on sports. ‘Why, it’s just men running around trying to score goals or runs or whathaveyou. Who could care about such a thing?’ These people are missing the big picture.

Spending an entire season following a team is an emotional investment. It takes energy and devotion and it can even be draining. It doesn’t matter that it’s other people who are performing the amazing feats. It isn’t important that anyone can watch a grueling hockey game while devouring a pizza. And who cares that people who have never skated or never played an organized game on the diamond or done any of that stuff can follow the action? None of that changes the fact that it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the emotionalism of sports.

And there’s far more than that to it all.

My first professional sports experience was a game at Fenway with my dad in 1999. I didn’t watch sports at that point – which is ironic considering my dad’s occupation as a sports journalist – so I couldn’t appreciate the fact I was seeing Pedro Martinez pitch in one of his Cy Young years – a year when he won the pitching Triple Crown and turned in one of the greatest pitching performances ever. No, I hardly had a grasp on all that, but there was so much more to appreciate. I appreciated the Fenway franks. I appreciated the cheers of the crowd. I appreciate that I saw the Green Monster when it still had its netting (though the seats look great). I appreciate that I sat in a park, which now holds the record for most consecutive sell outs, during a time when it was possible to just show up and buy a ticket on the day of the game with ease. But one of the things I appreciate the most is that my first professional sports experience was with my dad.

It took me some time to realize it, but the point of going to that game was for the sake of the whole experience – father and son. I had asked my dad if I could bring a friend, fearing how much I would enjoy watching a game I didn’t understand. He told me he could only get two tickets, so the answer had to be no. I decided to still go, but it later dawned on me that he had also invited my brother. There had to be a third ticket available. My dad wasn’t just inviting me to a game for the sake of hopefully seeing a Red Sox win. There was a much more important reason he wanted me to go to that game – a reason that would only insult the reader for me to explain any further. (The Red Sox did win, by the way, 7-2 against Anaheim.)

To dismiss any sport as “just a game” is to dismiss all that comes with being a fan. Whether it’s the personal emotional investment – it’s difficult to understand the relief felt by so many Red Sox fans in 2004 – or a family affair, sports are important. They intertwine with the lives of many of us in ways that rise above a casual game of Monopoly or cards. They have an impact on us in ways that are value-heavy and memory-impressing. They have an effect on our lives that give meaningful experiences we often would not – or could not – otherwise have.

Sports matter for their ability to rise above being mere games.

9 Responses

  1. “It’s only a game” most often when a person’s team loses. I don’t know if you have noticed that.

  2. For anyone interested, I had been planning this post since the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. However, a recent letter to the editor – which literally made me lol – did remind me that I wanted to write all this. It’s by local crackpot Jarody (yes, he has only one ‘name’) and certainly was not worthy of being included in the primary post.


  3. They have to put a period in when he runs for office to make the software take his name. It reads: “Jarody, .”

  4. And that’s fine. I happen to really enjoy sports – I can watch just about anything that isn’t soccer

    and tennis. Watching tennis is equivalent to watching paint dry.

  5. Ways that sports are like religion:

    1-People like the team they were raised to like. This is usually geographic, but many like ‘their father’s team’ even when they live elsewhere. (Chicago fans in NJ, etc) You will irrationally defend your ‘team’ even when certain players turn out to be jackasses or they just plain stink.

    2-People dislike certain players on other teams, but when they ‘join the fold’ suddenly your enemy is your friend. Likewise when a player leaves your team to another. The players have no ‘team loyalty’, they merely go with who pays them the most or who will pay them at all. You are cheering for the ‘uniforms’, if a team gets entirely new players you’ll still be loyal thinking it is the same team.

    3-People wear ‘lucky hats, shirts, etc’ and chant things thinking they actually have an influence on the game. (Rosaries, prayers) Some people even think that doing certain things while watching at home can effect the game somehow. Irrational Superstition runs rampant.

    4-The whole thing is about MONEY. Ticket price, rip-off food prices, parking. Buy an ‘official’ team hat or shirt? Pay an insane amount for it. Everywhere you look at the park is an ad. Everywhere. I’m surprised the urinal cakes don’t have hot dog ads on them. It is a business, first and foremost.

    5-Emotional outbursts that are beyond excessive. We’ve all seen many red-faced jerks SCREAMING at the field. I’ve seen grown men cuss at a CHILD in an opposing teams jersey. Yes. Get a grip.

    Also, Your last paragraph could be used as a defense of religion. (sorry!)

    I like a good game but that is all it is. Come on now.

    Baseball in particular has an excessively long season, they don’t need a hundred and whatever games to find out who is the best, but they do need the money.

    I like Tennis! Because it is one on one. Next year Roger Federer won’t be a totally different person unlike any team you could mention.

  6. I like a good game but that is all it is. Come on now.

    Doesn’t this declarative counter of yours strike you as the sort that religious folk tend to make?

    A: It’s more than just a game and here are two primary arguments why.
    B: Nah. It’s just a game. Come on now.

  7. It really sounds like the type of argument non-religious people tend to make.

  8. A: It’s more than just a game=(church and religion are more than just worship of an invisible entity, it gives us meaning! )
    B:It’s just a game. Come on now=(church might be satisfying and give you a ‘value-heavy’ and ‘memory-impressing’ experience, but the game itself (God) isn’t REAL.)

    I like sports. I just don’t agree that they are IMPORTANT any more than the way that Church is important to the religious. It is ultimately a lot of fuss over nothing. An evidence-less deity in the sky =(to me) a bunch of overpaid jocks hitting a ball with a stick. (except the jocks actually exist!)

    I watch with an amused indifference. My day isn’t made or broken depending on who wins unlike some people I’ve seen. They become GENUINELY DEPRESSED over a loss they had nothing to do with and likewise are ELATED when their team wins. I can’t get into that. You might as well get emotional about the weather.

    Also, the other night on Bill Maher, he made the observation that when the Bruins won the cup, Boston fans were chanting USA, USA! But the team only has 3 actual Americans on it. The rest are Canadian and European. How does this team really represent BOSTON?

  9. I know this is well after the fact, but I was just re-reading this post and I want to respond to the above comment.

    Jeff, yes, people do derive meaning from religion. However, this does not make sports like religion, nor does it counter anything I’ve said. That is, people derive meaning from plenty of things. A lot of people enjoy a quiet walk in the woods. Is that just like religion, too? Moreover, some arguments against religion need to focus on the meaning it gives to me. For instance, if I want to say that religion serves no purpose, I will have made a false statement. However, if I take into account the meaning people get from religion, I can argue that religion serves no overall good purpose. From there the argument can advance to which is more important, the meaning people derive from religion or its real world effects.

    Your second point doesn’t make any sense. I can agree that God probably isn’t real, but how is a sports game not real? Are you suggesting that the Red Sox did not beat the Angels 7-2 in the 1999 game I saw? Was it all just a fantasy?

    On your third paragraph: I agree that sports are not important to some people. If you see them as only a game, that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important to others. Let’s look at odd pet owners. A snake means little to nothing to me from a personal value perspective. I’m guessing you feel the same way. But what about a person who devotes his life to snake handling? I bet it isn’t just meaningless thing that has nothing to do with life for him. It’s the same with sports.

    They become GENUINELY DEPRESSED over a loss they had nothing to do with and likewise are ELATED when their team wins. I can’t get into that. You might as well get emotional about the weather.

    This betrays a tremendous ignorance on your part. First, it isn’t about who has made a direct contribution. That has never been the issue and if you can’t see that, you shouldn’t even bother participating here. Second, fans are important to a sports team. Home field advantage is tremendously important, and not simply because the home team has less travel. Look at the NFL. When a team has to travel to another stadium, they get a fair amount of rest prior to the game on Sunday. But that doesn’t matter when 75,000 people are pumping up the home team. Having a person or group cheer you on is one of the best performance boosts an athlete can get.

    How does this team really represent BOSTON?

    The only sensible way to be a sports fan is to do so by geographical location and/or connection. This will put some people in a weird spot and others will have to decide between leagues when their city has two teams, but it works for the initial reasoning behind being a fan of a particular team.

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