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Monday, June 02, 2008

The Importance of Games Part One

Late at the bar, after a bruising night of basketball, the question arises: "Who's the greatest athlete of all time?" The answers fly... Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown, Bo Jackson, Barry Sanders (my pick), Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Pele, Gretsky... the argument goes on. No one mentions Sergei Bubka (who was absolutely dominating in his field) because pole vaulting is too much of a specialized skill. No one says Kasparov because concentration and competitiveness are not enough to make someone a world-class "athlete". Someone says Tiger Woods and I groan loudly. I counter with Lance Armstrong and the rest of the table groans.

I ponder the etymology of the question. What are we really asking here? Why do we put so much stock into someone's ability to excel at sports? What are we actually measuring when we ask who is the "best"? Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game, but Bill Russell won eleven championships. Which feat is more impressive?

And one level deeper: why do we play these games? What purpose do they serve? Why do we admire these athletes to the point of paying them tens of millions of dollars per year? All I can come up with is that games (and specifically sports) are so important to us because they play two indispensable roles in society: we use them as indoctrination for our youth, and we use them in our adulthood as a way to sublimate our human blood lust into socially acceptable outlets.

The second path (sublimation) is most prevalent among middle-aged men who follow sports religiously. We have fantasy teams, watch ESPN highlights nightly and attend several games a year in person. We are looking for gladiators here. We follow athletes that act as our avatar on the battlefield. We honor athletic endeavors that are thinly veiled approximations of warfare. Football is perhaps the most warlike... with its sideline generals, teams comprised of field leaders, grunts and "skill guys" who use speed and deception to outflank the front lines and wreck havoc in enemy territory. Many sports like basketball, soccer and hockey follow a similar "penetrate the defense and attack the goal" model. Boxing, wrestling and martial arts are a stripped down version of the man-to-man "erete in combat" that the Greeks used to wax on about. The qualities we measure in our sports heroes are guile, speed, strength, endurance, coordination, mental discipline, and leadership... exactly what the US Army is looking for in their special units recruits.

As for the other path... the training (conditioning?) of our nation's youth... I reflect on my own childhood and see these same qualities being glorified as far back as 3rd grade. That was the year that I finally caught five balls during our morning "Flies Up" game... when one boy would huck a football as far and high as he could and all the other kids would crowd beneath, shoving and kicking and biting, and attempt to catch the ball. Whoever was tough, fast or lucky enough to catch five had the privilege of being the next to throw it. When I finally got my chance, the crowd gathered at a medium distance (unsure of what to expect of me.) I wound up and threw it ten yards beyond the furthest kid back, drawing a few oohs and ahhs from the crowd. The next day, during the longer lunchtime recess when we all played football, I was invited to play quarterback for the first time. This was an extreme honor, and something that young boys took very seriously. And even though I could throw the ball a long way, I didn't have the leadership and play-calling chops to survive long at the position before being ousted. Still, one week of getting to play QB was the highlight of the year for this 8 year old.

I don't know why it mattered so much... or what flaw in my character allowed me to accept being demoted without a fight. Perhaps I am missing the gene that allows Hillary to keep slugging even with her chances fading and the pressure to quit mounting. Maybe this is the Rocky Balboa gene? But I kept playing football, and developed a kind of respect for the early manifestations of athleticism we prepubescent boys displayed. I respected Jason Lindblad's speed, Eugene Madayag's size and power, and Mike Forbes' trickery in baiting opposing quarterbacks into throwing him the ball even though he was on the opposing team. And it even started making sense to me when some games would deteriorate into fist fights (this started happening in the fourth grade.) I wasn't involved in any of these fights... but it is curious that it didn't even seem "wrong" to me. After all, I was a very pacifistic child... I didn't even kill ants or torture grasshoppers the way other boys did. Along side the rest of my elementary schoolmates, I was being trained to respect athletic success beyond academic or artistic excellence... and way beyond simple traits like honesty, humility, common sense or decency.

As I endured high school, it was sickeningly apparent that popularity was entirely controlled by the jocks... those who had demonstrated and cultivated athletic aptitudes since the third grade. Luckily, as a nerd, it was easy to opt out. Popularity really didn't matter to us. We accepted that sports, dances, student government and pep-rallies weren't made for us... And they accepted that biology, foreign languages, mathematics, physics, history, acting, painting, and literature weren't made for them. It amazes me to this day how much importance my school (and our society) placed on these athletes... It's almost as difficult as understanding why I continue to play so many of these sports, and why it feels so good (as a 34 year old social worker fergawdsake) to have hit a game-tying home run in the final inning of my softball game last night.



At 6/02/2008 09:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

grow up kid while you can still walk without pain.

At 6/03/2008 12:36:00 AM, Blogger Diane said...

As a kid I remember my brother David telling me about his hero Deacon Jones (notoriously tough defensive end for the LA Rams in the 60's, one of the "Fearsome Foursome"). David told me with awe how Jones would reset his dislocated fingers while in position at the line of scrimmage, and then after the snap, rush & sack the QB. My brother's goal as a 10 year old was to play professional ball with the Rams, then go to medical school. He didn't do either (though he did get an invitation to try out for the Bears), but I know he carried that spirit of teamwork, tenacious determination, quest for mastery and, yes, that notion of working through the pain, as embodied by his sports heros, throughout his formative years and beyond. There could be worse role models.

At 6/03/2008 11:56:00 AM, Blogger lowcoolant said...

I have never connected with team sports, thus my gladiators have only existed in the one-on-one arenas. It's a very short list - Andre Agassi, Mike Tyson, and Bas Rutten.

And kudos to whomever wrote that anonymous comment.

At 6/03/2008 02:40:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Anonymous comment was left by my Dad, Bobbai.

At 6/03/2008 06:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 6/03/2008 07:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the greatest defensive genius ever to have played basketball must have been bill Russell. He dominated the game from his center position with the body of a smallish power forward. Read his book "go up for Glory" if you get a chance.

Chamberlain? no way! He wasted almost his whole carrier as a glory hog.

Lance is a great but the specter of drugs taints all of cycling.

Ali was the greatest fighter of my lifetime but I am morally opposed to paying men to beat each others brains out.

football is to close a model of war for my taste, also it seems to have a major drug problem.

At 6/03/2008 08:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I almost forgot. An easier question. Greatest coach of all time, any sport, any level.

John Robert Wooden

Can there be any doubt?

At 6/06/2008 06:36:00 PM, Anonymous Jimmimoose said...

This entire post, just so you can brag about hitting a game-tying dinger? Just put up a post saying, "Look out Barry Lamar Bonds!" and have done with it. :-)

At 6/07/2008 08:40:00 PM, Blogger John said...

The one homerun experience I will devote a whole post to, will be when I finally hit a walk-off jack. That is the one softball experience that has always eluded me.


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