A while back, J.F. Sargent, the Cracked editor and columnist most likely to be shoved into a locker at school, wrote about why we should all hate professional sports. He made some valid points, and I'm sure he wasn't at all just bitter about getting picked last for dodgeball in high school. But that got me thinking -- why isn't there a professional dodgeball league? I would watch the shit out of that.
Oh, and it also got me thinking about why I love sports so much. That's what this is about.
#5. They're the Perfect Casual Conversation Topic
We've all been to social outings where it quickly becomes clear that you have nothing in common with most people there. They're perfectly nice, but they're into ska music and The Big Bang Theory and light beer, and you're into things that aren't terrible. So you resign yourself to a night of awkward, stilted conversations about how, yeah, this totally is some weird weather we're having and, no, please, I'd love to see more pictures of your dog that you keep referring to as your fur-son.
Enter sports to save you. They're popular, they're inoffensive (for the most part), and they're often the one overlap between people who have otherwise wildly different interests. It's unlikely the guy who looks like a sentient incarnation of Walmart's Duck Dynasty aisle is interested in hearing about the pretentious indie video game I've been playing, but if he saw even a bit of the football game last night we suddenly have the basis for a polite 10-minute conversation instead of long stares into our drinks while I wonder if he's ever killed a man and he wonders if the sight of blood would make me faint.
Sports are a great option for small talk because they're easy to bring up naturally (just point at whatever game's on the bar's TV and go), people actually like talking about sports instead of the weather or their job, and once you start you can go forever. You can trade statistics and debate opinions all night, or if you'd rather not carry a conversation you just have to nod and say "uh huh" at the right intervals. You can always count on a sports fan to ramble through a void.
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"We're definitely losing this case. Also, go Bears."
It's like being able to hack awkward conversations. Maybe there's a co-worker you normally can't stand the sight of but can talk baseball with for hours. Maybe you're at a family reunion and have no idea what to say to a distant cousin -- just drop yourself in front of the big game together and shoot the sports shit. Maybe you're meeting your significant other's parents and you're worried they won't approve of you, but then you discover that you both think Vancouver Canucks fans are the scum of the Earth and suddenly it's smooth sailing. It's a topic you can discuss with almost anyone, even if you're both only casual fans, and that's immensely useful when you have a boring life and a terrible personality, like I do.
#4. They Give Cities an Identity
As a Canadian, I can always tell when an American is a hockey fan, because when I tell them where I'm from they don't blink in confusion and ask which Dakota that's in. Conversely, I couldn't tell you a damn thing about Kansas City (do they even have, like, an economy? And why isn't Kansas City in Kansas?), but I can name all of their major teams, and I would absolutely love to watch a baseball game there. I feel like I know the place a little just from seeing it in so many highlight reels.
Still no idea what this is supposed to be, though.
Sure, most big cities are known for something besides their sports teams. New York is known for Broadway, Portland is known for a show that makes 8,000 identical jokes about baristas and hipsters, Detroit is known for being a sci-fi dystopia, etc. But what the hell is, say, Winnipeg known for, besides being what I assume is Canada's suicide capital? I'm convinced there would have been a mass exodus had they not got their hockey team back. Now when people hear Winnipeg they think: "Oh, yeah, that's the home of the Jets." Instead of: "Oh, yeah, that's the home of abject human misery where some dude got beheaded on a Greyhound bus once."
In addition to putting otherwise forgettable places on the map, sports teams give denizens a collective identity. I doubt I can relate much to the 80-year-old chain-smoker on his way into the casino, but when I see his football jersey I think it's cool that he's been supporting a team I support longer than I've been alive. When a team is doing well it's fun to see a city get excited for a playoff run, and when a team's sucking harder than a porn star vacuuming a black hole you've got a few hundred thousand people to commiserate with.
"Well, at least we're not terrible and racist, like Cleveland."
It also gives people a connection to places they leave behind. If someone moves from Winnipeg to Kansas City because they were tired of getting mugged by alcoholics and were curious to see if anyone actually works in KC or if it's secretly a post-scarcity utopia, continuing to follow their team will remind them of the good, non-stabby days of their youth. Maybe they'll even run into another ex-pat and feel a little bit closer to their terrible home.
"We may have left, but we're still proud to be part of a proud Winnipeg tradition."
Athletes can become a part of that identity as well. No one cared that Derek Jeter was born in New Jersey and raised in Michigan -- he's considered a New Yorker through and through. It's like athletes are dating a city. When they're here, they've beloved family. If they leave a bad team after years of loyalty, we can't really blame them -- it's like a girl dumping a guy because she got a great job offer in another town but he doesn't want to leave his lifestyle of getting drunk at the strip club with his buddies on Wednesday afternoons.
It's only when a player bails on a good deal to go date the hot, cash-flashing douchebag in another town that fans get pissed off. Sure, Chad might be whispering sweet nothings in your ear now, but when something better comes along he'll drop you without a second thought, and you'll be stuck wishing you had stayed with the boring but reliable ... uh ... franchise. Yes. Sports.
#3. Most of the Players Are Good Role Models
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Rich men don't get a lot of support in modern society, but at the risk of appearing controversial, I'm going to stand up for this under-appreciated demographic. When someone like Ray Rice ends up in the news for making Middle-earth's orcs look civilized, it's easy to forget that most athletes are non-awful human beings who quietly contribute a lot of good things to their communities.
Before anyone misinterprets that and tries to email me anthrax, people like Rice deserve all the coverage and criticism they get. There's definitely a systemic problem that comes from giving a bunch of strong young men millions of dollars they'll probably mismanage while telling them that they're powerful and important and famous and can get any girl they want. But while this system creates some truly awful people, it's important to remember that most athletes aren't completely terrible people.
Mariano Rivera, for example, created a foundation that spends at least half a million dollars a year building schools and orphanages and providing social services in the United States and Panama.
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"I also threw the exact same pitch for the entirety of my career. Tell me what having to try is like."
Soccer superstar and walking Axe commercial Cristiano Ronaldo was asked by the parents of an infant who needed surgery if he would donate a jersey and some cleats for an auction, and instead he just paid the 50,000 pounds to cover the entire procedure (although it's possible he already had his checkbook out for his monthly hairspray order and cutting another check was easier than walking over to his wardrobe). On the local level, you'll find players you couldn't name if you're not a serious fan getting involved in school reading programs, or visiting children's hospitals and promising sick kids that the next chance they get they'll punch Sidney Crosby in the face just for them.
"He didn't, though."
I'm not saying these guys are saints -- if you paid me millions of dollars to kick a ball around I'd happily donate a lot of it to charity too. It's just nice to be reminded that athletes as a whole lean toward donating to charitable causes rather than donating to domestic abuse statistics. Now, you could argue that athletes should get paid less and more money should go toward making life-saving surgery affordable for everyday people, and I would completely agree with you. But I also want a unicorn that blows me. Get real.
Two would be better.
Also, keep in mind that once you get past high-level players, salaries start to drop off. It's much like Internet comedy -- Seanbaby lives in a house made of gold bricks and Siberian tiger skin, while I had to fight off three College Humor writers at the Wendy's dumpster to get my supper. You might make more than a WNBA player. Unless you're working in fast food you almost certainly make more than a minor league baseball player. Many Olympic athletes don't get paid at all.
So why do they do it? Because, except for the gypsy curse that's forcing Jaromir Jagr to play forever, they love it. They spend countless hours pursuing something that will almost certainly never make them wealthy because they want to enjoy what they do, and that's an admirable attitude to have in a world where a lot of people work jobs that make them miserable.