Once upon a time, I disdained to watch sports. Watching sports, in my estimation, constituted a waste of time, a needless assimilation into vacuous pop culture, and possibly a detrimental effect on my mental capacities. Intelligent, cultured people did not spend precious leisure hours on observing the pointless efforts of overpaid strangers.
After three years of study under the expert tutelage of my younger brother, I have determined to renounce my former position. In the hopes of winning over a few more converts, I offer the following reasoning, rebuttal-style, to explain my transformation from a sports denier to sports fanatic.
Obj 1. Sports are boring.
So is classical music — when you don’t know much about the rules, history, or personalities involved. I speak from personal experience on both fronts: When I sat down for my first full-length concert as an adult, I thought the musicians’ tuning their instruments was the opening number. When I watched my first baseball game, I didn’t know the difference between a ball and a strike.
Growing familiar with the mechanics of a baseball game parallels my growth in appreciation for movements and themes in orchestra concerts (albeit at an accelerated pace, thanks to my brother’s encyclopedic knowledge of sports statistics and history). Of course baseball is boring, if you don’t know to catch your breath when the star player reaches a full count, or shake your head when the center outfielder swings at a pitch outside the zone. With no context, no comprehension, no ka-ching.
Obj 2. Watching sports is a surrender to societal peer pressure.
Cultural literacy is a virtue: hard-won but worth the effort. It’s the difference between recognizing an allusion and looking it up on a smartphone. The more you know, the more conversations you can join, the more people you can engage. Our culture, although we may wish it were otherwise, emphasizes sports. Whatever else we watch, read, or discuss, the references abound. As long as I maintained ignorance of basic sports vocabulary, I missed out on a chunk of the humor and pathos lacing daily life.
Obj 3. Cheering for one sports team over another is arbitrary and nonsensical.
Sports are among the few facets of modern life that support local community by encouraging people to love something simply because it shares space with them. A logo on a hat, the right color combination, a station on the radio — they can all spark a conversation or kindle a friendship in a given locale. Regional fandoms bring neighbors together. They are the voluntary associations with local institutions that Russell Kirke lauded for “providing a buffer between men and the state.” For the same reason we respect a Southerner’s loyalty or a Midwesterner’s pride, we can appreciate a fan’s devotion to teams that lose repeatedly — as long as they are losing in a stadium nearby.
Obj 4. Sports fans are obnoxious.
Look no further than the modern Jane Austen enthusiast to recognize that one should not judge the quality of a pastime by the worst or even the average of its fans. I have met sports watchers in the past who failed to impress, but I could say the same of basically any human activity. If I charged every pastime with the sins of its adherents, I would be hard-pressed to ever enjoy a glass of wine again. Fortunately, imbibing at a fireside evening with friends differs vastly from partaking at a frat party.
Moral of the story: Watch sports with the people who know how to best enjoy them. If you worry that there aren’t many to choose from, take heart from the fact that you can count Bill Kristol and George Will among their number.
Obj 5. Watching sports is a waste of time.
Watching sports is entertainment. The best entertainment is leisure: receptive contemplation. What is there to contemplate in people’s moving a ball up and down a field? Nothing more or less than the human spirit. With the aforementioned criteria in place (background knowledge and the right companions), the objects of contemplation during a sports game range from strategy, psychology, and ethical dilemmas to virtues such as courage, humility, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and hope in the face of relentless, recurring, repeated disappointments.
Besides this, watching sports gives us the opportunity to admire the feats of physical exertion God has made our bodies capable of. Josef Pieper says it best in Leisure: The Basis of Culture: “The forms of leisure [including contemplation] help us to remember who we were created to be.”
If you are still loath to give up your status as an elite member of the last holdout against sports, I sympathize. It should help that, although the modern leagues may have germinated within the last hundred years, organized sports in general claim a venerable pedigree. Sports-watching gets a mention in texts as old as the ancient epic Gilgamesh:
The warrior-youths and the onlookers shall make a semicircle around a doorway,
and in front of it wrestling matches and trials of strength will be conducted
and The Iliad devotes copious verses to the competitive racing, boxing, wrestling, and archery at Patroclus’ funeral, to name just one example from a Homeric epic.
In short, sports have outlived millennia of human culture, which is more than can be said for most of the music I listen to. Think of it as another way to participate in the Western tradition.