America’s pro football league is in a feeding frenzy akin to the fabled salmon runs of the American northwest. This is the season when a few hundred players are on the move, looking for new teams. And in a month’s time another 300 players will move up from the college ranks to join the pros, via the annual draft.
These are heady times for me. At the most personal level I am particularly interested in what my team – the Patriots – will do to put together a Super Bowl winning team. But the entire drama is a major entertainment event. For me it is a combination of American Idol, Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars, The Oscars and Grammys all rolled into one. An entire network is devoted to the phenomenon, providing hourly updates. ESPN, the “worldwide leader in sports” is supplying high doses of coverage as well. But Twitter is by far the most active, with rumors, speculations and actual transactions flashing by on a minute by minute basis. In some ways it’s like the national election coverage.
There is however a sobering backdrop to the current buzz and hoopla. As one friend noted, some of these players will make in two years what the typical American makes in 40 years, and by extension he is not concerned about who gets cut or released by their team, or did not get that extra million or two. This sentiment is compounded by the stubborn economic doldrums that seemingly alienated all but passionate fans from the sometimes childish squabbles between billionaire owners, and millionaire players. Additionally, players have steadily lost goodwill with the high profile cases of illegal drug use, DUIs, domestic abuse and destructive excesses.
But here’s the good news; no one is obligated to care about this stuff. Sports indulgence is an optional life category. No one needs to care about sports in general or any particular sports. God knows, some of us care too much. Just look at the violent riots that occasionally occur with soccer, my favorite sport. Consider the vitriol spewed between Yankees and Red Sox fans. Or the periods of depression that follow a major loss by a cherished team or player. I still have bouts of intense heartache from Brazil’s world cup loss in 1998, Serena’s Wimbledon loss to Sharapova, the Patriots’ crushing Super Bowl losses to the Giants, and Merlene Ottey’s numbingly persistent Olympics losses.
But the case for sports enthusiasm – and lots of it – is easy to make for me. I start with leisure. I once held a discussion on the legitimacy of leisure, and a doctor friend was quite taken aback, and questioned the value of leisure. A key sign of human progress is the ability to afford and enjoy pleasurable things. In years past coal miners and farm workers toiled long, hard hours for pittance. At nights they naturally needed to sleep, to recover from a brutally tough day and get ready for the next one. Most likely they could not afford much in the way of entertainment, and sports such as golf and cricket and the arts were more reserved for the upper classes. The modern world has its challenges too. Consider, we typically work five days a week, with each day bookended by care for our kids, getting them ready for school, doing homework, giving showers, etc. Weekdays are filled with necessary chores, be it grocery shopping, cleaning the bathrooms, or doing the lawn. So sports fill a gap; that space where we can plug into something to ease us out of the serious and potentially stressful aspects of life.
I am not a casual observer by any stretch. I am fully invested in sports. I have favorite teams and players in a wide range of sports, including cricket, tennis, soccer, track, football, basketball, hockey, baseball and golf. At any point I am looking forward to a certain game, or wondering about a certain player’s destination, what moves a team will make, and how much it would take to land a player.
Great plays are as inspirational to me as great opera or art is to some people. I am in awe of the countless exhibitions of otherworldly greatness, be it a mesmerizing run by Messi, a powerful pinpoint Serena serve, a precision backhand by Federer, an exquisitely timed Brian Lara cover drive, a thunderous LeBron dunk, a perfect Brady pass, a scintillating curve sequence by Bolt, or an immaculate Tiger Woods stinger. Much of life is a monotonous procession of mediocrity. Most of us are B and C grades in most endeavors. Sports allow me to experience the peak of perfection in one walk of life. It is a glimpse into the wonderful possibilities of human capabilities, when the genetic lottery conspires with guts, ambition and opportunity to give us a transcendent talent such as Michael Jordan, Steffi Graf, Mia Hamm, Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Pelé, Wayne Gretzky, Sachin Tendulkar, Babe Ruth and Usain Bolt.
Some time ago during the Tiger Woods/Phil Mickleson debate, someone remarked that they preferred Mickelson because he was flawed enough and seemed more human and relatable. I don’t watch sports to relate to a player in my flawed state. What is the point? I see my flaws each day in the mirror, as well as on the odd occasion when I put on my cleats or take up a racket. When I invest my precious time to watch sports, I am interested in seeing the best. I am fascinated by the superlative results that accrue from a regimen of hard work, combined with raw talent and drive. So beyond a mere escape from the rigors ennui of daily life, top class sports is a chance for my spirit and mind to soar and exult with each dash of a highly conditioned body and each arc of a ball, delivered with exquisite hand/eye or foot/eye precision.
I love the business of sports as well. Where else can you combine your favorite sports with high finance, contract law and negotiations? Decades ago Olympic athletes could not compete if they ever took money from their sport. And today hundreds of athletes toil for schools for a pittance while the schools rake in millions. But just as I find nobility and dignity in my work, so too I give to the athlete that same nobility and dignity, for his work, when delivered free of illegal drugs and with the right attitude. Some argue that big salaries and all the money sloshing around in sports somehow tarnish the field. Not to me. I never worship at the altar of amateur sports, save for some memorable years in high school.
Athletes make millions, and not surprisingly that is viewed with disapproval, especially in a down economy, where many of us struggle to pay the bills. As the logic goes, why should a guy that catches or kicks a ball make more than a fireman or nurse that do “serious” work? Beyond a serious disagreement with the cost of attending ball games, I have no issues with the salaries paid to athletes in general. Sports are in great demand and anything that is highly demanded usually fetches a high price within a capitalistic society. Billions of dollars are swilling around in soccer, football, basketball and baseball. The athletes create and deliver the on-field product, and deserve their fair share of the pie. Yes, some are overpaid, and I fully acknowledge that fact. But by the same token there are many underpaid players, so I will assume there is a balancing effect somewhere, and assert that over time most salaries fall within an acceptable market-driven range.
Life is a mixed bag. We have serious, necessary things such as families, jobs, and the poor that demand and deserve our attention. Additionally, there is a need to engage in serious dialogue about those issues as well as others such as the state of our economy, bloody conflicts in diverse places, environmental issues and faith. But for me there is ample room for the less serious, the light, the whimsical; the stuff that fuels my rest, soothes my nerves and refreshes me. That is what sports do for me; and that is why I watch with passion and discuss with zeal.