19 September 2016

Sports, A Drug To Be Used in Moderation

Fans and players celebrate Saturday's Cal victory.

Sports can be like a drug. Addictive with euphoric highs and depressing lows. Sports, like drugs, should be used in moderation, many people become obsessed. I am a recovering sports addict, although unlike with other addictions, I still get an occasional fix and be okay.

Sports are central to most cultures, certainly modern day ones. They feed into a natural desire for competition and to our tribal instincts. They are a healthy substitute for war and we would all be blessed if athletic competition replaced combat for good and all. Humans are pack animals and loyal to their packs which accounts for nationalism and devotion to a sports team.

Athletes are revered and lavished with money far beyond their worth to society. Multi million dollar contracts for people playing a sport, regardless of their skill level, are absurd (similarly the gigantic paychecks received by those in other forms of entertainment such as acting and singing are ridiculous and too the titanic bonuses and golden parachutes bestowed upon CEOs).

At its best sports promotes good health, provides family entertainment and  one can participate at virtually all ages and level of abilities. Sports can be good for K-12 schools and universities and professional sports allow fans to see the very best at their respective competitions. Televised sports are a comfort to many whether aged, infirm, depressed, sick, bored or lonely. There's no harm in plunking yourself in front of a televised sports event, provided you pursue other diversions.

At its worst sports can foster nationalism, violence, addictive behavior, divert funds from education and other social services. The construction of stadiums on the taxpayers’ dime is a veritable crime, and pubic funds by universities for stadiums and sundry perks for athletics is also shameful. Many people besides athletes get rich off sports and ticket prices have been soaring in the past 20 years. Sports have been corporatized and monopolized and enriched the already rich.

The exploitation of college athletics to enrich coaches, athletic officials, TV networks and others is one of the great crimes perpetrated in this country. The place that sports play in the life of major universities has been out of hand since at least the 1920s but it keeps getting worse and worse. At many schools the emphasis on athletics perverts the mission of institutes of higher education.

Meanwhile sports fans can, and all too often do, exhibit utterly ridiculous behavior. I do not refer to cheering and celebrations but to tantrums and angry insults directed at players — particularly unpaid collegians. The level of vitriol spat upon players, through jeering, booing, online comments and general kevetching is sad indeed. Imagine a student at a top university carrying a full course load while practicing their sport and playing games, many after long trips, imagine this 20 year old being yelled at for missing a free throw. It happens. I sat near someone who complained of a Cal women’s basketball player, one who was an All American, a record setter and is now a pro, all this clown could do was speculate about how much better she’d be with a good outside shot. In other words he could not appreciate her for who she was instead lamenting what she wasn’t. (He was a professor emirates, if you can believe it.)  Sports fans hurl abuse not only at players but at opposing fans. Light hearted needling is fine but coarse and profane shouts can ruin the spectacle.

I was inspired to write all this after the events of last Saturday evening. Mind you, I used to follow lots of sports and quite closely at that. Over the years, starting about when I reached middle age, I “dropped” a lot of sports like the NBA and the NFL and all college games that did not involve the University of California. Today I only pay close attention to: English soccer, particularly my favorite team, Arsenal as well as other international soccer competitions; Cal football and men’s and women’s basketball and occasionally the San Francisco Giants of baseball and the San Jose Sharks of ice hockey. Less is more.

I still check other sports online but only give them a cursory glance. I have freed up a lot of time for other activities such a reading, writing, films, running and bothering my wife. Also I’ve cleared a lot of clutter from my brain. There still exists, for example, the starting lineup of the ’62 Giants, the uniform numbers of many former 49ers, the colleges attended by many Warriors, championship winners, scores, record holders and enough trivia to fill a library. But I’m adding considerably less these days.

People sometimes point out what I’m missing by not watching such and so. I in turn do not point out  -- though I could -- what they are missing by not reading Thomas Wolfe, seeing the films of Antonioni or going to the theater to enjoy a play. We none of us can see and do everything.

Yes, yes, back to last Saturday night. I was at beautiful Memorial Stadium in Berkley home to Cal’s Golden Bears. I have missed a mere handful of games in the past 35 years. With Cal football I have experienced a lot of misery and heartache. The Bears' record of futility is unparalleled in sports. Thankfully I long ago learned not to let the outcome of a sports event ruin my day. My late great father set a terrible example for me (about the only negative one I saw out of him) by fussing and fuming over his team’s losses. I didn’t call him for days after a 49er loss to spare myself an angry recounting of the team's sins. For the last 25 or so years I’ve never dwelled on a team’s loss for more than 15 minutes, if that. It’s simply not worth time in this life to be upset over the outcome of an athletic competition. (Then there is the schadenfreude engaged in by many, almost exclusively men. I’ve never understood this. Simply, it is taking satisfaction in the suffering of another sports fan. Oh, its quite understandable if that suffering was inflicted by your own team, but when its not….well I find it bizarre. I had (note the past tense) a friend who reveled in Arsenal’s losses, never failing to bring them up to me while never mentioning them if they had just won. This is someone who otherwise had no interest in English soccer. Odd but all too common.)

Okay, again back to Saturday. My beloved Golden Bears were big underdogs against the 11th ranked University of Texas. Cal had the previous week lost a heartbreaker at San Diego State. The prospects weren’t good and were especially bad when my heroes fell behind 24-14 and the Texans had the ball. One of the delights of sports is the surprises it provides. The Bears came storming back and secured the upset victory in exciting fashion. What a feeling to dance and jump and hug strangers and romp on the field after the game. Joy unbound. I make no apology for my giddy behavior or for feeling especially good in the two days since (I needed it).

Here is sports at its best. If the Bears had gone on to lose I would have glumly headed home but by the time I was reunited with my wife would have all but forgotten the game. It would have been a nice outing and, despite the defeat, time well spent. But with victory came elation. So sports has become for me a case of low risk and high reward.

It took me too long in my life to really put sports into prospective and treat it like the occasional and welcome diversion that is, one that sometimes brings joy and on the other hand should never bring anything worse than a short pout.

One other thing about sports which relates specifically to me and Cal football is that can be a link to the past and to family. Cal football brings to mind my mother who took me to games, she sat in the rooting section while a student at Cal and never lost her love for the university. My father likewise took me to games (he also took me pro baseball, pro football, pro basketball, college basketball, ice hockey, boxing and track and field). My big brother went to games too. When the Cal band takes the field I always look up to the sky and see my parents and sibling smiling down on me. Indeed it is the traditions and pageantry of Cal football that keeps me coming back no matter the team's prospects. Loyalty is love practiced.

Some sports and teams are special because they are inherited and are part of family lore. For me that is especially true of Cal sports but also to a lesser degree of the Giants and 49ers. But also special for me is Arsenal because they are the one team I picked for myself.

I close by saying that my oldest daughter caught the sports bug from me. One of the greatest things in my life has been taking her to Giants’ games as I’ve done every since she was 8 years old. (It has also been a treat to take my nephews out to the ballpark. They are my brother's sons and the fruit did not fall far from the tree, these are fine young men.) Fortunately, my daughter has learned earlier than I did not to go into a funk if her team loses (I'm happy to report that she and her sister are infinitely more intelligent than their dad. I am a proud father) I’m grateful for that. And I’m grateful that I can appreciate sports for what it gives and not for what it takes.

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