Citius, Altius, Fortius
As I write this column in the wake of a week two loss that brings my long-supported NFL team to an 0-2 start for a season that was believed to have Super Bowl expectations, subtracting that last item from my first venture into sports writing would seem to be a challenge. Admittedly, I am very grumpy at the moment, and perhaps there is no harm in informing you that this writer loathes the Eagles, Redskins, and Giants, he can't stand the Lakers, and he tends to view the Yankees as evil incarnate. There is no denying the camaraderie and rivalry among fans that are inherent to following sports, and as such I will not be ignoring that aspect. The question of why one becomes a sports fan does go deeper, however.
I told an old friend of mine about a week ago how excited I was about the return of the NFL season, and he replied that he has never understood sports fandom. This guy was an athlete himself (granted, in the relatively "fringe" sports of modern pentathlon, cross-country, and swimming), but he does not understand the hysteria. It is not as if he consciously resisted; it just had no appeal. He made the analogy that hearing the excitement of sports fans and not being able to join in their passion feels like the regret of watching his friends who smoke go outside at a bar or party and missing out on that shared experience of theirs. There is a simple fix to that; I myself am not a smoker, but I have been known to go outside with the smokers purely for the sake of sharing their nicotine-exile discourse. As I told him, I think that the spectator's interest in sports is not very different than any of our society's other popular diversions that he enjoys, such as movies, video games, or books.
So why sports?
Certainly there is truth to the frequently made comparison to the ancient Roman Colosseum. We enjoy the vicarious thrill of physical competition with high stakes. Even if these arenas do not house those mortal stakes of old, hundreds of millions of dollars hinge upon the results with television contracts, the construction of multi-million dollar stadiums, endorsement dollars, and tourism in the balance. Most of these highly competitive gladiators that we watch care very much about the results and invest innumerable hours of work and preparation. The morale of a city's citizenry rises or falls with a win or a loss. We establish the stakes ourselves in these diversions that are very trivial in the universe's ultimate scheme, and as a result said shifts in morale are self-fulfilling. Those stakes serve a purpose, though. They are the buffer that can bring meaning to a meaningless void, and for some the very virtue of the effort and devotion required creates what we regard as true worth and meaning. At times the potential ugliness of the mob is the result (see Auburn Hills, Michigan, on November 19, 2004), but just as often the beauty of fellowship binds us together (see the city of New Orleans on February 9, 2010).
As a narrative, sports give us the stories that no screenwriter could write. Every athlete has a tale, and the most intriguing of these bind us even more strongly to these contests in which they engage. Whether you love him or hate him, Brett Favre - now a grandfather - keeps coming back for one more year in the NFL, and we maintain our interest in his next chapter, even if the media coverage of his every off-season act borders on the obnoxiously deafening. The staggering high school basketball heroics of team trainer Jason McElwain in 2006 rightfully inspired us. The interplay between pitcher Armando Galarraga and umpire Jim Joyce earlier this season demonstrated to us true class in the face of a blown call that prevented baseball history.
There is an ad campaign by Disney for their upcoming film Secretariat: "The Impossible True Story." We can scoff at Disney for not seeming to know what the word "impossible" means, but this only underscores the point. The most exceptional of the true sports stories seem to defy reality and go beyond the verisimilitude provided to us by Rudy or Hoosiers . With all the sports competition that occurs, happenings like those are probably statistically inevitable much like the unlikely existence of life in this universe, but this does not diminish their resonance.
Sports also appeals to me personally in the realm of game theory and the manner in which so many on-field decisions are based on mathematical probabilities. I am far from a master of the plays and schemes in any of the major sports. My most notable participation in my youth was also in one of the aforementioned fringe sports. Nevertheless, over the years I have acquired a working knowledge that enhances my appreciation of these contests, and I am always trying to learn more. I remember the time during my childhood that my father demanded that I let him teach me how to read a baseball box score and the many games that we watched together in the ensuing years. There is an entire language to be learned in those numbers and abbreviations (AB, R, H, RBI, E, HR, HBP, etc.) that succinctly communicate the story of what took place on the field. My taste for baseball has eroded over the years because of the myriad of problems that have plagued the sport recently (most notably the steroids controversy), but I still marvel at the elegance of the game on its strategic level.
The choices available in offensive and defensive playmaking in football are even more dizzying, and yet those choices are so easily upset by the almost arbitrary bounce of a ball or a step taken too soon or too late that can turn the best laid plans into the most capricious yet basic tests of athleticism. It is that game of "inches" that Al Pacino's coach in Any Given Sunday stressed as paramount. It is as if these games are a representation of the forces that govern our universe. Coaches create schemes that conform to the rules just as elemental physical laws formed our galaxies, and the clashing of bodies on the fields of play are something like chaos theory in action, a factor that continues to confound the most studied pundits and prognosticators.
Above all else perhaps it is the highest level of performance in sports that fascinates us. I have many great memories of enjoyment in victory or commiseration during defeat. When I think back on what I have seen, though, particular moments that share something in common are the most prominent.
In 1996 Pete Sampras vomits between points at the U.S. Open due to heat exhaustion and finds the will to push on and win the match. Also in 1996 Kerri Strug defies an ankle injury and completes the vault in the pursuit of guaranteeing her team a gold medal. In 2002 Donovan McNabb remains in the game in spite of a broken fibula and throws four touchdown passes to bring the Eagles a victory. In 2008 Jason Lezak swims a preternatural final relay leg in the 4 X 100 freestyle relay to come from behind and give the U.S. the gold medal; it is a physical feat that is akin to that supposed superhuman adrenaline surge they say that people have found when lifting an impossibly heavy object that is crushing a loved one. And, of course, in 1992 Michael Jordan gives us an uncanny barrage of three-pointers in the NBA Finals against the Portland Trailblazers that prompts him to look at the sidelines and simply shrug, as if to hint at some higher reserve of ability within himself that even his exceptional competitive drive and work ethic could not explain.
These occurrences and other similar ones are etched on my memory. They are remarkable and startling. In their visceral purity, they represent not just the apex of our athletic achievements but also something much higher. These greatest moments in themselves are also something like a microcosm depicting humanity's place and endeavor within this humbling and harsh universe. Our athletes use the most basic item that we possess - that is, our physical forms - as they strive to excel, to better their opponents, to break records, and to be faster, higher, and stronger. As they go, so does Homo sapiens struggle to advance and transcend.
C. Robert Dimitri is nothing more than your average American sports fan that has spent far too many hours in front of the television and has absolutely no further credentials. He reserves the right to change any opinions expressed here; unlike the practice of bandwagon sports loyalty, there is virtue in shifting a position when given new information.