I have hated sports my whole life. I was born into a wimpy, brainiac family and I will likely raise myself a bunch of wimpy, brainiac children who will spend their lives, as I have mine, shaking their heads condescendingly at the sports-obsessed masses. Part of it's just sour grapes, no doubt. I'm not naturally gifted in that way and don't want to invest the effort it would take to improve, so from age six I start convincing myself that I don't care that I'm always chosen last for dodge ball (couldn't throw, couldn't dodge -- absent when I should be present and present when I should be absent).
Another factor is that I was a dancer. Tap dancing for six years, ballet for ten, three en pointe. Mine was a higher physicality, you see: culture, refinement, elegance, grace. Not base competition -- rather, motion for motion's sake; the human body as artwork, not as cog in a pinball machine. Except....the further you get into dance (ballet especially) the more that "you're only competing against yourself" mantra disintegrates. There may be no scoreboard, but there is very much a competition heating up, and its dark side is starvation and obsession. Sports have got steroids and obsession. Boils down to pretty much the same thing.
Another reason I've hated sports is that it always stole the limelight away from academics, which I'm good at. I watched athletes in high school get ridiculous amounts of attention while barely passing their classes, and it annoyed me. I went to college and was rankled to find that the center of campus was the stadium. So I avoided football games on principle --I would not sully myself by entering that pagan temple. (Except when Grandpa was in town and forced me to bow before the pigskin gods. Grandpas trump principles.)
And of course, a lot of sports I simply find boring. This is no doubt partly because I have never bothered to learn the rules or play the game myself, so it just looks like a bunch of thick-necked chumps running around aimlessly. Just like ballet can be boring if you've never experienced the painful price paid for that smooth, effortless penchée.
But it's kind of lonely in this sports-free zone. Not that I need or want one more thing to fill my time, but you feel a bit defective when the whole world is electrified by something and you don't even feel a spark. I don't want to catch fire, but I would like to at least feel the heat now and then. Understand a little bit what all the hubbub is about.
So along comes my new hero, sports commentator Frank DeFord. Apparently he's been around for decades and even writes for Sports Illustrated, but I just recently started catching his "Sweetness and Light" bits on NPR as I drive to work on Wednesdays. He is smart and witty and he loves sports; he is not ashamed to celebrate them and he is not afraid to ridicule their absurdities. He is, simply, the man who might finally drag me down from my snobbish heights with minimal kicking and screaming. Here's a funny bit I found in the Washington Post about his sportswriting career:
As a writer, the worst two things that ever happened to me were, number one: I had a happy childhood. Number two: I belong to the absolute and utter majority, bland across the board. I have no personal injustices to rail about. An agent of mine once said to me, "Frank, you are the last of the tall, white, male, WASP, Ivy League, heterosexual writers." Oh, we were Huguenots on my father's side, but the last time any of us was burned at the stake was 300-odd years ago, so it's hard to work up any angst or compassion for me on that account.
Perhaps this is why I ended up writing about sports. I didn't set out to be a sportswriter, but once I got into it I found that I rather liked having a cross to bear. If you've never been discriminated against, it's refreshing -- finally -- to be a brunt of prejudice. You see, generally, people -- especially those of the literary persuasion -- look down on sportswriters as sort of genial dunces. It is instructive to note, as I have pointed out often before, that it is actually impossible for sportswriting to be any good. This is because, if a sportswriter somehow manages to write a piece that seems the least bit competent, he will be complimented thusly: That was so good you can't really call it sportswriting!
And he's right -- I am one of those very snobs. I guess that's because sports seem so unimportant -- so unrelated to anything Real. But I love to read Roger Ebert's thumbs-down reviews just for the quality smackdowns, so what's the difference between unreal sports and unreal movies? With Frank at the helm, I'm prepared to believe that there's Something to the world of sports. Maybe only a little Something, but Something. And Something is infinitely more than Nothing.
Or maybe I'm just in love with him. (Check out that hair!)