Sports have taken a back seat lately, and rightfully so. It’s perhaps never been more clear, in my experience at least, that there are more important things in life than sports — namely the health and safety of our brothers and sisters, young and old, loved ones and strangers alike. Without a doubt, a deadly and wildly contagious virus has a way of putting things into perspective.
That said, living without sports has been no small change for me, and I know I’m not alone.
I went from playing pickup games twice a week, watching multiple games on TV every week, reading multiple sports-related articles every day, and talking sports with whoever’d listen — to doing none of the above in about the snap of your fingers. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the past couple of months has been perhaps the most sports-deprived time of my entire life. And I am not okay!
On the bright side, it has provided me a lot of time (a lot!) to compare and contrast life with and without sports. It has become abundantly clear how much I miss it, and the lack of opportunity to observe and participate in athletic competition has also increased my appreciation for the ways sport enhances our lives, even beyond providing a way to pass the time or create fodder for water-cooler conversations.
Here are a few reasons why it’s clear to me that life is indeed better with sports.
1. Sports brings people together.
One of the remarkable things about sports that I hadn’t quite appreciated *pre-corona* is the sheer number of people who pack into one building to watch a sporting event (which is also why these events will be one of the last things to return to normal). It’s not unusual for a pro or college sports team to have 50,000 people buy a ticket and sit and watch a game together. Some games — I’m thinking of college football or european soccer — get as big as 100,000 or more. (And if you’re the type who thinks auto racing is a sport, that’s 150,000-plus…)
Think about that for a second. That’s the population of a small metropolis — all coming together to enjoy a game for a few hours together in the same place. And if you’ve ever been to a packed stadium for a sporting event, you know that the fans come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, ages — and those are just the things you can see from a distance. Follow along with the sports conversation on Twitter, and you quickly realize that a single sports team often draws fans from wildly different socio-economic backgrounds, political affinities, even geographical locations.
In a day and age when our public conversations are seemingly becoming ever more polarized, sports have a dramatic ability to bring people together regardless of their views on pretty much anything else.
2. Sports is culture.
Not only do sports provide a reason for disparate people to come together, they also provide an arena for a shared appreciation of many other things worth celebrating, even beyond the Xs and Os, particularly in a specific locale. This became most clear to me as my home of Minneapolis and St. Paul was building an array of new stadiums in which their teams could play.
The Minnesota Wild hockey team built a new arena for their inaugural NHL season in the year 2000, and one of the pre-eminent design features of the Xcel Energy Center was a set of high school hockey jerseys hanging on the walls, circumnavigating the entire club level, representing high schools big and small from across the state of Minnesota. Hockey is a big deal in Minnesota (historically speaking, the Wild are still something of a blip on the radar), and the team shrewdly attests to that fact loud and clear in their decorating of their arena. It also speaks to the fact that there’s a strong identity in the state of Minnesota around here. Notice none of its major league teams are named Minneapolis or St. Paul, even though all the pro teams call one or the other home. (Although the Twins name represents both with one of the more unique nicknames in all of sports.)
Those Twins’ Target Field prominently features the distinctive golden Kasota Stone, quarried from southwest Minnesota. The shape of the Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium evokes a viking ship, an ode to the large Scandanavian population of the state. In front of their Target Center, the Timberwolves erected a bronze statue of Sid Hartman, the legendary local centenarian journalist, in addition to their statue of George Mikan of the one-time Minneapolis Lakers — a name that made much more sense before the team moved to Los Angeles.
Each of the stadiums feature local beer and restaurant food from the Twin Cities, including the world’s best hamburger (at least by this man’s pronouncement): Target Center’s Parlour Burger, which is made with locally farmed beef. And you better believe we’ve been blasting Minneapolis-native Prince’s music all game every game since the legendary rocker’s premature death four years ago.
You simply cannot attend a sporting event at any of the local stadiums — most of them named after locally-founded businesses — without coming away with a greater sense and appreciation of all things Minnesota, athletically or otherwise.
3. Sports provides conversation.
One of the lighter moments of my sheltering-in-place experience was the NFL Draft, which was held in April. I’ve always loved sports drafts, especially the NBA Draft, probably more than most sports fans — most of my teams are typically so disappointing that the highlight of the year is often the day we have a chance to add new players. This time, I definitely spent more time studying the NFL draftees ahead of time and tuned into more of the actual spectacle — which now covers three separate days (!) — because, well, what else do I have to do?
One of the fascinating elements of the professional draft system is how the players aren’t simply selected based upon their talent level or success in college, but upon perceived character traits. This can include anything from run-ins with the law and disciplinary action on their college team to more nebulous things like “desire” and whether he really *wants* it (whatever “it” means). Or even how well a guy is perceived to handle the newfound money and fame he’s in line to gain.
Judging a man on his character, of course, is a dangerous game, whether that’s for picking a football team or otherwise. And to me, that’s another reason why sports is so compelling, even beyond the boxscores. It provides a space for sports fans — which, you’ll remember, comprise the whole gambit of age, gender, religion, and politics — to discuss and debate the weightier things in life. What are “character issues” anyway, and which ones should we be concerned about? Which of those are forgivable? Can we celebrate flawed individuals? Is cheating always wrong?
Some of these debates are more or less just frivolous fun, but some can really strike at the heart of the human condition. And sports provides a context and arena for some of the most important conversations in life — or at least the beginning of them.
Throughout these last couple of sports-less months, there are things I expected to miss and haven’t (like watching crappy local teams — I’m looking at you Timberwolves) and things I miss more than I ever thought I would (oh what I wouldn’t do to enjoy a $13 beer at the ballpark right now). Ultimately, it’s proved even more clearly that for all its warts, sports is a real good thing. Here’s to hoping they’ll all come back — safely — and very soon.
In the meantime, you’ll have to excuse me as the Timberwolves are guaranteed a top-seven draft pick (again) and I’ve got some research to do.