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A Case of Understanding

A woman friend of mine recently teased me about my habit of watching the NBA playoffs. With her tongue planted not so firmly in her cheek, she laughingly said it was a mindless pastime and that my concern about who won and who lost was beyond her understanding. I told her there were many reasons I watched, but one of the most compelling was that televised sports are, to me, the most honest things on TV. And compared to the current shallow, so-called news-talk shows, they are far more meaningful.

She smiled and said, “I just don’t get it—overgrown men in shorts fighting over a ball—what’s so interesting? Can you explain what it is you find so riveting?”

I saw this as an interesting challenge. Could I explain to her why I was such a committed sports fan? I had some ideas about why but had never put them down on paper. Clearly, I had very little chance of converting her to sports watching but perhaps I could help her understand what motivated me to do it. I came up with the following letter of explanation.

Dear Mary,

Your question, What’s so interesting about sports? got me thinking. Hopefully, the  following will clarify why I enjoy watching sports and how it has held my interest over the years.

1. As a fan I’m always looking for the “perfect game.” Such a game is characterized by:

   —Opponents with an equal level of skill

   —Opponents who are equally well conditioned

   —Opponents with equal tactical and strategical skills

   —A level playing field

   —A contest where the outcome is unknown until the very end

Perfect games can give fans a unique high. The drama of such games is so intense and appreciated that they become legendary.

2. I appreciate the psychology of “momentum.” When both teams or individuals are playing well, momentum can change to the opposition in a heartbeat. Maintainance momentum is fragile and can change X number of times during a given game. Great coaches and athletes know how to bring about such shifts, and it’s fun watching the strategies and tactics they use in order to do so.

3. Teams are made up of players who are young and old, experienced and inexperienced, and the development of the intangible but important qualities of leadership and team chemistry is interesting to observe. Seeing players develop leadership confidence and watching them learn to gracefully exert it with teammates and bring about team chemistry is psychologically fascinating. 

4. Sports operate within a true meritocracy. As an athlete, you either perform under pressure or you are off the team. The ability to meet that pressure is a monstrous challenge. You’re scrutinized by your coaches, scores of writers and millions of fans. You cannot fake acceptable play. You must perform. Watching players learn to perform under pressure and change from being merely good to consistently great is inspiring and immensely entertaining.

5. With individual sports like tennis and cycling, watching players grow from inexperienced to experienced—from immature to mature—is intriguing. Talented young players are challenged to compete gracefully while millions watch and evaluate them on TV. Some don’t meet the maturity challenge even after years in the spotlight (e.g., tennis player Serena Williams’ graceless remarks when she loses). Some succeed (e.g., Rafael Nadal’s graceful post-match speeches whether he loses or wins).

With team sports, learning to be unselfish and to gracefully accept one’s given role on the team is a major challenge. There is a saying: “Until age 18, sports is a character builder, but after 18, it is a character revealer.” Self absorbed, non-team players are traded, fall by the wayside or end up playing for second-rate teams.

In his book Life on The Run, Bill Bradley, the ex-senator and legendary New York Knicks basketball player, wrote that he was asked why he continued to play past his prime. He explained that the willingness of an athlete to accept a lesser role on a team once it becomes clear he has diminished skills is a powerful opportunity for personal growth. We cannot be permanently at the top of our game, athletically or otherwise, and the willingness to contribute in a meaningul but diminished role is a sign of maturity.

For all these reasons, sports have held my interest for sixty-plus years (I was an avid Brooklyn Dodger fan by age eight). Naturally, whether my favorite team wins or loses is important to me, but it is not nearly as important or interesting as the above. I hope this letter gives you some insight into why I’m so passionate about sports watching.

Not surprisingly, my friend, in her answering email, wrote, “I understand now what it is you’re enjoying. I didn’t know sports offered so many things to appreciate. Sadly, it still seems like a waste of time to me. But I’m glad you get such fun and stimulation out of it.”

I’m fine with my friend’s reaction. All I wanted was her understanding of what I found worthwhile about sports. She gave me that. Sometimes when friends take an open-minded look at our passions and beliefs, they’ll choose to share our passion and sometimes they won’t. It is our openness to another’s experience when it is different from ours that makes the enrichment of a given friendship possible.

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