5 Ways Professional Sports Benefit Society
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Most of the Players Are Good Role Models
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.
"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.
The Experience Is More Important Than the Result
Fundamentally, sports are about failure. If you're watching solely for the sake of glory, you're going to be disappointed -- in most sports, even the best team loses every season, and when you have, say, 30 teams competing for one championship, many of them will go decades without winning or even getting close.
And that's OK. As much as analysts talk up the thrill of victory, and as much fun as it is to see a big win, it's the experience you remember more than the result. A Sunday afternoon football game is an excuse to invite a bunch of friends over, fire up the barbecue, and cram junk food in your mouths, or at least that's what people with friends keep telling me. I love seeing my favorite baseball team win, but I love sitting in the sun on a beautiful autumn day and drinking beer for three hours even more.
Pictured: The only way to properly enjoy a display of peak physicality.
Don't get me wrong: winning is great. When you watch your team win there's a tiny spring in your step the rest of the day. And when they lose it's natural to be a little bummed out, because you're emotionally invested. But you have to put that loss in perspective, because if you're using it as an excuse to get angry or drunk, then you need to take a long, hard look at why you're a fan in the first place.
Most fans go through a maturing process where losses really piss them off. It's usually not that bad -- if you're anything like me (and I know I am) you just swear a bunch and then pout for the rest of the night. Eventually you realize the important part was that you got to spend a night hanging out and eating chicken wings with friends (it's always chicken wings; I'm pretty sure vegetarians only watch figure skating and synchronized swimming), and you learn to put things in perspective. It's the experience you'll remember long after the result, and it's always a little sad when fans don't realize that.
For example, during the Sochi Olympics I got up at 4 a.m. on a Sunday so I could find a seat at a bar to watch the gold medal hockey game. Canada won, obviously, because our team was vastly superior to the collection of Swedish Chefs the Tre Kronor called a hockey team. But I barely remember the game itself, which, to be honest, wasn't terribly exciting.
What I do remember was drinking beer and talking with a bunch of strangers on a cold winter morning when I would normally be sleeping off a hangover instead of contributing to a new one. And we knew we weren't alone -- nearly half the damn country watched the game at that ungodly hour, because apparently Canada needs an intervention. It was the sort of ridiculous, once-in-a-lifetime experience that you couldn't help but take part in. Had we somehow lost to a bunch of, ugh, Europeans, it would have been disappointing, but it wouldn't have changed the fact that it happened and was tremendously fun to be a small part of. And that's what sports, at their core, are all about.
They Provide Real Drama Without Real Consequences
We all love drama. That's why we gossip about friends and co-workers, that's why we watch news reports that sensationalize the mundane, and that's why we all tune in to The Bachelor every week to see if LeSeanda will finally realize it's better if Chet picks that skank Triniti because she's too good for him anyway. But gossiping is a mean habit, we should demand better from the media when it's reporting on serious issues, and reality and dramatic TV shows are artificial.
"This just in, that shithead Steve in accounting watches Dating Naked."
Sports address all of those problems to give us easily digestible drama in a healthy context. They're real, but in the grand scheme of things they're inconsequential. The drama of a Game 7, a big trade, or a draft lottery doesn't hurt anyone. I can insult Swedish hockey players with impunity because my comments look tiny from atop their giant piles of money and trophies. We can talk about great plays and big comebacks in overblown terms because there's no downside to using them. Bombastic words like "hero" and "struggle" don't define sports accurately, but they define what we want to see in our daily lives. When we use the word "hero" correctly it probably means someone died tragically, and the joy of a dramatic story is squashed pretty quickly when there's a sad real-world consequence.
This has been the role of sports for ... forever, essentially. Just replace "bread and circuses" with "Budweiser and sweet-ass catches."
This is important.
Although the former was coined to criticize a public that ignored serious problems as long as they were entertained by Russell Crowe, and I think we've moved past that -- gladiators probably didn't get in much trouble for beating women.
Admittedly, there's still a long way to go. I love sports, but there are absolutely times when society puts too much emphasis on them. I'm as guilty of it as anyone -- I can't say the fact that at least eight people died preparing for the 2014 World Cup prevented me from enjoying it. But the fact that we all stop and get angry when someone is assaulted, or when a player runs a dog-fighting ring, or when a team continues to use a laughably outdated and racist name shows that sports fans are smart enough to separate our fun pretend drama from other people's serious real drama. We watch sports to distract us from the fact that real life can sometimes be kind of awful.
You can read more from Mark, including his diatribe against Saskatchewan Roughriders fans, at his website.
For more from Mark, check out The 5 Best Places to Make (Creepy) Friends and 6 Real How-To Guides You Won't Believe Anyone Needs.
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