Sports as a Social Construct (and Other Quasi-Deep Thoughts)

The arch that marks the start of a sprint triathlon frames contestants waiting for the starting gun

Contestants gather at the start of a sprint triathlon in San Diego, CA

I was going to start this post with the phrase, This just in: Sports are big in America. But then I had a little grammatical battle with myself, which, to be honest, got a little ugly.

See, part of me felt strongly that the proper phraseology is, This just in: Sports is big in America. And that stemmed from the notion that “sports” is a singular thing, as opposed to a collection of things. I eventually agreed to disagree with myself, but it did get me to thinking. And once again, that little one-year project—the one with all the games—provided needed context.

Whenever I’m asked to identify my biggest takeaway from the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour, my answer is always the same. I learned that, without a doubt, the happiest sports fans in America are those that spend at least as much time playing as they do watching. Of this I am absolutely, positively certain. You can retrace my steps if you’d like to test the theory, but trust me—you’ll come to the same conclusion. And you’ll also come to agree with me when I say that sports is and sports are. The former is entertainment. The latter are recreational pursuits.

A view of the grandstand during a Seattle Sounders game reveals an active, passionate supporters group -- one of four officially recognized by the team.

One of four officially recognized Seattle Sounders FC Supporter Groups engages in The Full 90

Sports as entertainment (or “sportainment”, if you will) offers a few key benefits. It gives you a break from the daily grind—a chance to lose yourself in unscripted drama. And many social scientists maintain that the physical act of rooting, i.e. the cheering, fist-pumping, and general jumping about while watching a game actually yields several physiological benefits as well. Sportainment also provides entrée to membership in a group of like-minded folks, even if you don’t actually interact directly with them. When you are a fan—particularly of a specific team—you are part of a tribe. Which is good.  

Sports as recreation also provides a release. And for sure, the health and well-being benefits are undeniable. But when you play a sport rather than watch one, you become part of a community. Which is better than good.

I know of a guy named Luke, who is campaigning for a role as Commissioner of Athletics. I’ve seen some of the stuff he’s written, and I like what he has to say:

“While of course I like to win as much as anyone else, I know it is more important to be respectful and a good role model whether we win or lose. Coming together as a team and improving each game is the most important lesson I’ve learned. I want to share that with everyone, no matter what they play or do… Sports are about learning to work as a team and showing our school pride, EVEN if you don’t play on a sports team. It is about community.”

Here’s the thing. Luke is 11 years old. The role he’s seeking is as a member of his school’s Student Council. He is wise beyond his years, and that will serve him well.

And here’s another perspective

Steve Mackel calls for all hands in, during a pre-marathon SOLE Runners pep talk.

The SOLE Runners huddle in the pre-dawn darkness just prior to yet another marathon

My wife, The Bird, likes to attend sporting events, and generally has at least a passing interest in any game to which I’ve tuned the television. But “sports” to her means getting up at an ungodly hour on Saturday morning and driving 25 miles to meet up with her SOLE Runners club. Together they train for endurance events, typically those that significantly test their individual comfort limits. They actively encourage and help each other in whatever way they can, and often gather as a group to compete in marathons or triathlons. They are an athletic community, both in the micro sense of their own club, and in the macro sense of being Runners.

From what I’ve witnessed in my travels, I’d venture a guess that there’s a local SOLE Runners equivalent for pretty much every sport out there. And judging from the fact that destination sports in this country is a $8.7 billion business, there are a lot of sports-related communities being built out there, participant by participant.

And then there’s this…

Amid a sea of blue, runners head toward the finish line of the Olympic Triathlon Trials in San Diego

A view of the finish line at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Trials

A couple of years back, I was standing along the barrier at the finishing alley for the U.S. Olympic Triathlon Trials in San Diego. The woman standing next to me was clearly not a casual bystander, and sure enough, she eventually spotted the triathlete she’d come to see. It was a young man, who, with each approaching stride appeared even younger. After he’d passed by on his way to the finish line, I struck up a conversation with the woman who turned out to be his mom. When I asked her how old her son was, she glanced around and lowered her voice. “Well, not quite as old as his application materials say he is.”

Apparently, his USA Triathlon qualifying events hadn’t been all that strict about age verification, and they simply rode the wave on through to the Trials without ever having to prove that he was old enough to compete. Throughout the process, they harbored no illusions that he would come remotely close to earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, so I eventually asked: Then why?

“For all of this,” she beamed, sweeping an arm to include the full panorama of the venue. “Can you imagine a better experience for a young athlete?”

Triathlon~RunnerInTransition Triathlon~SprintSwim

It turned out that her son had been flopping around in search of his identity, but when he began to compete in endurance events, all the cylinders of his personality began to click. “He’s matured so much in the past couple of years, and made so many friends through these competitions.” And then, with a little hitch in her voice, she confided, “I think he finally likes himself.”

Call me crazy, but I’m guessing he wouldn’t have garnered the same benefits by joining the junior fan club of his local NFL team.    

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