Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It's Not a Sport If...

With the end the NCAA basketball season and the NBA and NHL heading into their playoffs, we're coming up on a time of year when sports really takes a nose dive in my book. Prepare yourselves for a summer lineup full of golf, poker, auto racing and similar. I'm pleased that Seattle now has the Sounders FC MLS team as that will fill in a little of the immanent sports void.

This got me thinking about a conversation I had once with a buddy about what is a sport and what is not. He summarized his feeling on the subject by saying, "It's not a sport if you can do it while smoking a cigar and wearing a pinkie ring." I think that does very nicely.

A sport, to me, is something that requires athletic ability. You need to exert yourself in a physical way in order to play a sport. You need to be up, active, moving and performing athletic actions as part of the activity to be a sport. This can be in an individual or team situation, and certainly mental abilities are important too. These are things like basketball, track and field, football, soccer, hockey, baseball (but see my note below), tennis, skiing, skating, boxing, etc. You get the idea.

Using the cigar and pinkie ring test as a guide, here are some of my thoughts on the important matter of what is not a sport...

Rock solid, not a sport

  • Billiards
  • Bowling
  • Poker
  • Darts
  • Target shooting
  • Hunting and fishing

Most of these are games. They are not sports. No discernible athletic ability is required to perform them. Put them in the category of Monopoly, checkers and pie eating contests. They can be as difficult or as easy as you want them to be, but one thing that is not required is athletic ability beyond what your average everyday person can muster - a person smoking a cigar and wearing a pinkie ring to boot.

To be clear, I'm not disparaging the games. They can be really fun, social and competitive activities. They can also be quite difficult. And, I realize that some people who excel at them can make money by playing these games in tournaments or via wagers. All I'm saying is, these are not sports and I'd appreciate it if we all just recognize that.

In terms of fishing and hunting, those are now pastimes based on the need in times now long gone to secure food to eat on a daily basis. You don't need to be athletic to sit in a boat or stand in a stream and catch fish. Similarly, walking around the woods with a rifle is not athletic.

Barely a sport, very questionable

Golf - that's right, you heard me. I question if golf is a sport. Up and until a few years ago, I would have squarely put golf into the not-a-sport category. However, since Tiger Woods came on the scene it's clear to me that some athletic ability does elevate this leisurely rich man's game to another level that we can tenuously place inside the "sport" category. His example has inspired a new breed of golfer, at least at the top levels, who is more athletic and it shows.

Take Tiger out and, well, you've got a bunch of everyday people walking around on the grass with a stick (and usually a beer) in hand who occasionally whack at a ball. Add in cigar and pinkie ring and, there you have it, not a sport. Again, I'm not saying golf is easy. Far from it. Lord knows I am horrible at it. Golf is hard. But to swing a club at a ball and get it to go a distance and direction you want is not something that requires athletic ability - just lots and lots of practice.

Motor "sports" such as NASCAR, Indy car, hydroplane racing, motorcycle racing and the like. Driving is not a sport. The end. If it was, then virtually all Americans play a sport every day...and I think you'd agree that most people aren't exactly up to playing a sport every day.

The only reason that I've pegged it in this category instead of the game-oriented "not a sport" category is that for what most people think of as the "sport" of racing, there is probably some amount of athletic ability needed to deal with the speed to control whatever vehicle you're sitting (sitting!) in. But, mostly, driving is a mental activity rather than an athletic one. So all you NASCAR fans out there, you can take pride that what you like to watch is compelling, competitive, difficult, dangerous and indicative of what you'd really like to do in your own car...but please, do not delude yourself into thinking that driving is on par with running, lifting, jumping, throwing sports.

Suspect sports

Baseball - Baseball is a sport. Indeed, to play it requires athletic ability and effort. Running fast, being strong enough to hit a hurtling baseball out into the field of play or throw it quickly and accurately to teammates and hand-eye coordination are all required. So, for baseball fanatics reading this and my comments below...I'm not saying baseball is not a sport. It is.

What I am saying is that it's suspect. Here are two reason why:

1) At any given time in a baseball game, everybody involved is doing absolutely nothing. There is a LOT of standing around doing nothing in baseball and, well, doing nothing is not very athletic now is it? Plenty of time for that cigar and the pinkie ring doesn't get in the way. In basketball, hockey, soccer, football, lacrosse, tennis or any other sport there is a lot of action pretty much at all times. For those of you who might be tempted to say, "but in football they huddle after every play and there are time outs," I say, "Do you really want to compare how much down time there is in football with baseball?" I think not. It's not even close.

2) You don't necessarily have to be fast, strong or in shape to play baseball. For example, if you for whatever reason just happen to have a good arm for pitching...that's all you need. You literally can be a fat, out-of-shape slob who can throw the ball. You don't need to run fast, jump or perform any other athletic move than to throw the ball to the catcher.

Sailing. Similar to motor sports, I have my doubts about this "sport." However, I think there is enough running around, lifting, hauling and muscling going on to elevate it to sport status - albeit in the "suspect" category rather than "barely a sport." Also in its favor, there isn't an engine powering the movement of the vehicle. The team has to use its mind and muscle to get the boat into position to harness the wind. On the down side, sailing is - in the end - a bunch of people on a boat. Getting from point A to point B on a boat isn't exactly the most athletic thing you could do...and you certainly could do it with pinkie ring set and cigar lit.

So there you have it - at least from my perspective. There are plenty of other activities that could be listed in any of these categories, but I think these are the best examples.

What do you think is a sport? What isn't? Why?

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