Sport in American Culture: What’s the Big Fucking Deal?

This will be the first of several columns by new contributor Drew Laurens dedicated to understanding and deconstructing the origins, implications, and legacy of sport and sports culture in the United States of America.  [Note: Please bare with us as we update the author information.  Thank you.]

One afternoon while I was driving home I was listening to an NPR teaser about a sports piece. In the middle of it, a six-year veteran of the NFL used the words “we would give up our lives” when describing the importance of the game of football to himself and his compatriots. This statement sent me into mental convulsions as I immediately thought of the very real brain health problems that chronically plague the NFL’s ever-growing pool of retirees. Did he know that people had given up their lives for this sport — years before they actually died? Did he not think about what he was saying? Did he not know that former players routinely commit suicide by shooting themselves in the chest so that we can still study their brains? What makes such a game worthy of this penultimate sacrifice?

I’ll be frank: I’ve never loved sports. I’ve participated in them, enjoyed them on a couple of different levels of competition, even volunteered to be an alternate on co-workers’ teams and friends’ leagues, but I don’t love them. In fact, my feelings about some sports borders on hatred. As a white American male under 30, I know that this is unusual. I am well aware that the cultural norms where I live require some minimum knowledge of a few professional sports, in addition to college rankings for the southeast (I live in Georgia.). I have this knowledge; I maintain some semblance of familiarity when it comes to regional or national events. The fact remains, however, that I despise sports.

I’ll clarify what I mean. I despise professional sports, specifically football, basketball, baseball, NASCAR, soccer, and golf. By contrast, I believe hockey is cool, the Olympic sports are by-and-large great (excepting the ones that include professional Americans), lacrosse is at least interesting, and the World’s Strongest Man is an incomparably amazing event that I love to watch. So I don’t dislike all professional sports — just the ones which most of my countrymen seem to adore.

I’ve attempted to go back in my own memories and find a triggering crisis, some kind of smoking gun that resulted in my aversion to organized play, and I think I found it. It involved ten-year-old Drew sitting on a field listening to the father of one of his soccer teammates tell them all about his plans when he was coach the next season. He used strong language to say that he intended for the team to be much more competitive next year. He was almost yelling by the time he finished, and ten-year-old Drew was completely disengaged. I distinctly remember going over to my mom when he was done with what I’m sure he thought was a rousing call to action and saying, in so many words, “I don’t want to play next year. If he’s the coach, it isn’t going to be fun.” My mom, God love her, didn’t stop me.

Even then I had come to know a few things about the kind of people who played sports: they could be kind, intelligent, and happy kids like me, enjoying themselves on Saturday mornings no matter if we won or lost, or, especially as I got older, they could be harsh, impatient, and loud kids, no less intelligent, but far more aggressive. The child whose father was going to coach soccer that next year was like that, as were some of my other teammates.  They always seemed mean to me — not necessarily mean to me but mean nonetheless. Unfortunately, I don’t have any corroborating memories of this, but as a kid I tended to trust my gut. My line of reasoning was that if I didn’t like the kid and thought he was mean, then his dad, who had just finished a raucous speech about being more competitive, was probably more of the same.

So since it is my hope to be frank about why I don’t like sports, I will start with openness about this particular memory. It is possible that I just didn’t like the kid or his dad, and because I thought of them when I thought of sports, I started to not like sports. I can also easily point to any number of situations in which I was bullied by the cool kids who, of course, played football, baseball, and basketball at a time when my biggest after-school activity was Boy Scouts. I can think of a dozen situations in high school which negatively affected my judgement about the young men behind the face masks, in the singlets, or on the diamond. But, and I encourage you to come along, it goes deeper than that, so deep, in fact, that it has more to do with what I had already learned about aggressive kids at age 10. It has to do with the evolving state of children’s competitions even today. It has to do with a culture that seems to prize selfishness, brutality, machismo, emotional immaturity, and stupidity in its heroes.

I don’t understand it. I don’t get watching a game with millions of other people, I don’t understand painting your chest or crying after your team loses, I don’t understand riots in the streets after a victory or the permissive cycle in which everyone from teachers to commissioners participate when sports stars do reprehensible things. I don’t understand why these fellow humans insist on behaving as if they were different or more important than others simply because they can run faster or shoot a ball better, and I don’t understand why we as a society agree with them. This issue has bothered me for the majority of my life and every attempt I have made to comprehend the love others have for these games has ended in anger, confusion, and disgust. My opinion is that professional sports have a negative impact on society and should be far better regulated. It seems, however, that sports are here to stay, so rather than rail blindly, I’m going to make an honest attempt at documenting the impact modern sports have on our culture. Whether that is negative or positive will be up to the reader.

Objectivity will be my watchword as I explore this topic; the last thing I want to do is contribute to further stereotyping or heteronormative parroting about the sanctity of these subjects. I will maintain as closely as possible the respect many feel is due to the athletes and fans of these sports and will not engage in bashing of any kind for any reason. My biases will be challenged, and even, I hope, set aside, in an effort to start a conversation about the over-veneration of dangerous games. Insight is appreciated and so is your company on this journey.

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