Last week, during a bit of downtime, I began to think about what it means to be a sports fan. Sports talk show hosts and newspaper columnists often engage in conversations about what it means to be a true fan, but this wasn’t where I was headed. I wanted to reflect upon how I had grown and changed as a sports fan, and understand what it means for my life and those of others.
When I was in first or second grade, I began to become enamored with sports. I remember waking up and getting dressed for school quickly so I could catch as many highlights as possible from the morning SportsCenter. In those days, I was most interested in the plight of the New York Yankees – my favorite team at the time – to see if they had won the previous night’s game that had ended well past my bedtime.
For most of my days in elementary and middle school, I probably could have had a relatively serious conversation about sports – as serious a conversation as a 10-year-old could have. Conversely, my thoughts on current events and politics were less developed. Honestly, I don’t think I read any part of the newspaper besides the sports section.
This began to change, though, toward the end of middle school and the beginning of high school, when I began to follow politics more closely. I particularly remember being a bit jealous of my classmates who were up on the hottest political debates, thinking they had some sort of monopoly on the topic. The overachiever in me felt challenged, and I began to develop a strong interest and passion in all things political.
At the time of this change, I don’t believe I felt sports were meaningless. It was just that politics seemed so much more important. In politics, they weren’t talking about mere games, but rather the best ideas for the future of our country and the world. MSNBC and Fox News replaced ESPN for me. I became fascinated, and decided that’s what I wanted to pursue. It’s how I wound up here at Georgetown studying government.
When I arrived here three years ago, I thought this progression would only continue. Little did I know that my experience at Georgetown would make me realize that my elementary school’s inclinations of placing sports on a pedestal above politics were the right instincts.
Like most students here, I’ve taken my fair share of government classes and engaged in political debates with friends. But the longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve found myself thinking, talking and working with sports more than any other activity or interest on or off campus. It has allowed me to recognize the significance of sports in our lives (and the relative insignificance of politics).
Yes, much of my perspective has to do with my roles in life (umpire, intramural sports official, sports columnist, et cetera), but I believe I’m not alone. Many of our most meaningful memories from our days as children and our time in college will involve sports – whether it was playing in a high school tournament, taking part in a pickup game or watching the Hoyas at Verizon Center.
It is obvious a lot of us feel this way. The question then becomes: Why are we so fascinated and moved by sports?
I’d like to think that I would have understood this on my own, but nothing has helped me to realize this more than the words of Fr. James Schall, S.J., the beloved government professor who is out on medical leave this semester. In his book “Another Sort of Learning,” Schall perfectly encapsulates why we are hooked. In his chapter entitled “On the Seriousness of Sports,” he explains it’s because sports allow us to discover and explore the highest things in life.
“[T]he closest the average man ever gets to contemplation in the Greek sense is watching a good, significant sporting event, be it the sixth game of the World Series . or the county championships of his daughter’s volleyball team,” Schall writes. Through sports, he argues, we first discover what we perceive as just, what fascinates us and what is serious in life to ponder. Because games exist for themselves and no other purpose, they make us wonder about what else in life need not exist, yet does for its own sake.
But it’s his theory on the relationship between sports columnists and their political counterparts that most strongly resonates with me because it corresponds to what I’ve lived. Schall maintains that the best political commentators often write in the sports pages first, where they are able to grapple with some of life’s most fundamental questions of what is fair and just, right and wrong, virtuous and vicious. In that context, politics seem quite mundane compared to the world of sports, especially when political squabbles rarely allow us to contemplate the highest things in life. It also explains why the love and passion for sports transcend those for politics.
So, I think, that 7-year-old boy watching baseball highlights was right after all. He wasn’t sure why at the time, but he was fascinated by the exploits he saw on the field for the first time, allowing him to discover new things about our world and leading him to dream.
Perhaps instead of trying to search for answers to life’s eternal questions in politics, that not so little boy should flip on a game, and rediscover what it means to live in wonder of all that might be.”