Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 84 (June/July 1998): 11-12.
Sports nuts express their nuttiness in a variety of ways. My colleague Matt Berke, for example, is a monomaniacal sports nut. He likes only one sport, baseball, and only one team, the New York Yankees. Which of these is the more unfathomable is hard to say. Baseball is, of all sports other than soccer and curling, the most boring—George Will’s hymns to its subtle rhythms and arcane strategies notwithstanding—and the Yankees, of all teams, the most to be despised. Yankee fans pretend to hate owner George Steinbrenner, but they know, deep in their hearts, that it is entirely right that their team’s fortunes are in the hands of the Ivan the Terrible of the sports world. As I learned in a childhood blighted by New York’s domination of the game, rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for the Germans against Poland in 1939 or for the Soviet Union against Finland the year following. But I digress.
I am today what you might call a quasi-sports nut, deeply interested but not fully consumed. As a child, though, I was the real thing. In lieu of a life—how easily we forget childhood’s vast seas of boredom—I had sports. I played them enthusiastically but with indifferent skill. I was small, a step slow, and had mediocre coordination. Most hitters first encounter frustration with curveballs; I could never quite get around on good fastballs. But I was a brilliant fan. I devoured not just the sports pages, but all the sports magazines and sports books I could get my hands on. I had a gift for memorization, and to this day my brain is cluttered with trivia of the oddest sort. How many people do you know who can name all eight teams of the old PONY League (PONY being the acronymical title of the postwar Class D baseball league consisting of teams from Pennsylvania, Ontario, and New York)?
As with all true sports nuts, my knowledge and enthusiasm were indiscriminate. It wasn’t just baseball, basketball, and football I followed in minute detail. (I picked All-American football teams three teams deep.) I could, for example, list in proper order the top contenders in all the boxing ranks from flyweight to heavyweight. I not only listened every week to the Gillette Friday night fights on radio—I scored them. Needless to say, my scores often bore little relation to the actual results. The first fight I remember seeing on TV was at a friend’s house when, to my great dismay, Rocky Marciano knocked out Joe Louis.
Sports on radio had a magic that TV sadly demystified. If I had to pick my single most glorious moment in sports, it would be listening to Michigan beat Ohio State, 9-3, in the "Battle of the Blizzard" at Columbus in 1950 and win a trip to the Rose Bowl. Chuck Ortmann punted twenty-four times for Michigan in that game, and it must have been an excruciatingly dull white blur to watch—the field markers were obliterated—but hearing Michigan pull the upset was nothing short of exhilarating.
As I grew older, my interests (beginning with girls) diversified, but I have never entirely put aside childish things. I still spend more time watching sports than I could, were I a Type-A personality, rationally justify. But I am not such a personality, and so the time is redeemed. Sports events on TV are watchable depending not only on the particular sport itself, but also on the level at which it is played. College basketball is very good, but professional basketball is almost as boring as baseball (at any level). Pro football, far and away the most riveting of television sports events, is clearly superior to its college counterpart, which, excellent at its best, can fade to unutterable tedium when the game is the Utah School of Mines vs. the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. I am as certain that these judgments are right as I am entirely baffled as to why they are right.
The time I commit to sports is one thing, the emotional toll it takes on me quite another. Sports does not matter as much as it did in childhood, but it matters more than I can explain. Sometimes I can hardly explain it at all. Take baseball. Other than for an occasional World Series game, I can almost never sit still for a full nine innings. Yet every morning during baseball season as I listen to the early sports news I experience either a small surge of pleasure or a small pang of regret depending on whether the Detroit Tigers won or lost the day before. I don’t really care to watch them any more, but the thrill of victory or—with the Tigers, much more frequently—the agony of defeat still registers.
With my favorite sports team, the University of Michigan football team, matters are quite out of control. The Wolverines are the most frustrating of teams, almost always in contention but seldom quite at the top. For more years (after 1950) than I like to recall, the question was always the same: would Michigan break my heart by losing to Ohio State, and thus not make the Rose Bowl, or beat the Buckeyes and then lose to Southern California or UCLA at Pasadena?
Now, when I say "break my heart," non-sports nuts will dismiss that as absurd exaggeration. But all those who are similarly afflicted recognize that, absurd or not, the pain is real. And so—though, unfortunately, not quite as strong—is the joy when things turn out right. This past year, when Michigan beat Ohio State and went on to win the Rose Bowl and a share of the national championship, it (almost) made up for a half century of disappointment.
So what is it—aside perhaps from arrested development—that accounts for such disproportionate emotional investment in the ultimately insignificant? (No matter how many times I recite the mantra "It’s only a game" while watching Michigan play, I never persuade myself for a minute. The churning of my stomach tells the real story.) It’s not, as some feminists argue, a "guy thing" designed as a prop to uphold fragile male egos and perpetuate a macho culture. I’m not into most guy things: cars bore me, and I have never understood the glories of the hardware store. (Plus I almost never beat my wife, even on Super Bowl Sunday.) Nor am I impressed by deep-think interpretations that impose on sports events a burden of meaning they cannot bear. I am unpersuaded by the argument that the designated-hitter rule threatens civilization as we have known it.
Sports is simply a grace: a minor grace, but a grace nonetheless. (At truly incandescent sports moments, as when the basketball team of my alma mater and former employer Valparaiso University this year advanced, against all expectation and indeed against all rational hope, into the third round of the NCAA championship, the grace takes on the character of the miraculous.) Sports relieves the weight of life. It satisfies, in an innocent way, our competitive urges. It reminds us, precisely in its absurd elevation of the trivial, not to take ourselves too seriously. There are those, it is true, whose preoccupation with sports becomes so all-consuming as to constitute a moral disorder. A life lived in a sports bar is a life ill spent. But for the great majority of us, sports provides a pleasurable interlude in life for which we not only need not repent, but for which we should offer continuing prayers of gratitude.