The holiday season seems like a good time to talk about what's right with sports. The reason I work on sports reform issues all year is because I love what sports can be at their best.
There certainly are plenty of problems to choose from. Just open your sports page on any given day of the week. Undoubtedly, the number of significant issues in the world of sports has never been greater.
Nevertheless, sometimes it's important to step back from what's wrong, and reflect on what's right. And, even deeper than that, try to understand why we love sports -- warts and all.
One thing's for sure, you either get it or you don't when it comes to sports. H.L. Mencken once said, "I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense." Indeed, for the non-believer, the energy sports fanatics spend on "games" is baffling. They constantly wonder, "Where does the passion for sports come from?"
Professional golfer Mike Reid might've come closest to a quick and dirty answer when he said, "Sports is like life, only with the volume turned up." So true. During the few hours of the typical sporting event, participants and fans often run the gamut of emotions -- with an intensity seldom matched by other pursuits in life. CBS' One Shining Moment montage of highlights at the conclusion of the NCAA men's basketball tournament captures the emotional ups and downs of sports perfectly.
But there's much more to the mystical allure of sports. Here's one man's shot at some of the reasons sport grabs a hold of us and doesn't let go:
• It's Fun! -- For sports fanatics, nothing can provide as many enjoyable experiences over one's lifetime as sports. Whether it's playing pick-up basketball on the playground with neighborhood friends when you're 12 or going to NCAA tournament games with a few buddies when you're a geezer, fun is what first draws you to sports and probably the main thing that keeps you hooked. As former Denver Nuggets coach Doug Moe once said, "There's nothing like sports. You don't get out of [sports] unless you have to."
• Unpredictable Entertainment -- The history of sports is filled with improbable upsets. Upsets are the fuel that drives March Madness. Go to a play or concert and you pretty much know what to expect. Go to a sporting event and anything can happen. The playwright/screenwriter, Neil Simon, said it best: "Sports is the only entertainment where, no matter how many times you go back, you never know the ending." In my mind, it's the only reality TV worth watching.
• Lifetime Bonds -- Sports often play a big role in nurturing family relationships, whether it's husband and wife, parent and child, or grandparent and grandchild. Sports provide a link between generations. Sadly, sports once were primarily the province of males. However, today, with athletic opportunities for females proliferating, the passion for sports can be shared with everyone in the family.
And the bonds that result from sharing sports experiences aren't limited to families. For countless Americans, sports have provided the foundation for the development of lifelong friendships.
• Closer Communities -- Nothing builds solidarity in a community like sports. Go to any major sporting event and you'll see spectators of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds high-fiving and hugging each other after big plays. Sports allow the CEO and the custodian to converse on equal footing. Even total strangers who discover they have a common interest in sports share an instant connection that brings them closer together, if only for a short time.
• Close to a True Meritocracy -- On the fields of athletic endeavor, the desire to win supersedes the penchant to discriminate. When Don Haskins and his five African-American starters at UTEP (Texas Western at the time) beat Adolph Rupp and his five white starters at Kentucky in the 1966 national championship game things changed quickly at Kentucky and throughout the South. Coaches decided they'd rather win than discriminate and began recruiting African-American athletes.
Athletics (on the ice, courts and fields, not necessarily in the executive suites) is probably the only sphere of life that offers a level playing field, where people from different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds can meet and test themselves in a fair environment.
• True Character is Revealed -- In sports, you can't be a phony. You are what you are. An athlete or coach's true character, good or bad, will often show through in the heat of battle. Most of us have run into the person that exudes class on the street, and even in the locker room, but on the field or court turns into a total jerk, cheat or poor sport.
• Clear-Cut Winners and Losers -- Determining winners and losers in day-to-day life is often a murky proposition. However, in sports, the scoreboard will tell you who won and lost within three hours. There's clarity and finality.
• Teamwork and Camaraderie -- One of the joys of team sports is working and sacrificing together to achieve a common goal. The thing most former jocks miss from their playing days is the camaraderie, not the competition.
• A Great Test -- Sports give us a chance to test ourselves against others. What distinguishes simple recreation or physical activity from sports is "agon," a Greek word meaning contest or struggle.
• Spiritual Experiences -- Many athletes will talk about times when they were "in the zone," or "flow" and felt a sense of ecstasy, supreme confidence, and oneness with the universe. Maybe sports atheists and agnostics will never understand, but to me, sport -- in its purest form -- is a spiritual experience.
In the midst of the holiday season, and as the year comes to an end, let's take a moment and reflect on why sport continues to tug at our souls despite all the ego-based junk that too often gets in the way.